La La Land (2016) Movie Review by John Walsh

Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt

After recently cleaning up at the Golden Globes, La La Land, the triumphant follow up to Whiplash from Damien Chazelle is a truly beautiful creation. Following in the footsteps of Hollywood classics; such as Singin’ in the Rain and Casablanca, the latter even getting a mention at one point. It’s an immaculately crafted piece of escapism that draws even non-musical fans like myself in with its alluring charm.

Opening with an infectious musical number performed symbolically by young commuters stuck in a gridlocked freeway headed to Los Angeles. They begin exiting their cars, one-by-one, dancing, flipping and performing all sorts of intricate choreographic acrobatics to the ear worm inducing ‘Another Day in the Sun’. The camera weaving exquisitely around, over and through the performers in one continuous take. Following this brash, Broadway-esque introduction, the film begins in earnest panning down to our two leading stars. Mia (Emma Stone); barista come aspiring actress and Seb (Ryan Gosling); a surly, jazz enthusiast and pianist. Some road rage and finger flicking ensues after Seb is trapped behind Mia, who is blissfully unaware that the traffic has began moving again, too busy reciting lines for an audition.

The film continues to follow Mia as she travels to her work at a small coffee shop within a film studio before we see a brief, comically bad audition unfold. Somewhat dejected looking, she arrives home to a flat shared with three other friends. Another musical number soon kicks off and all four head out to a party that proves to be rather anticlimactic. An impounded car later and she’s soon walking past a club on her miserable trek home. Hearing the somber tones of a lonely piano, curiosity gets the better of her and she heads inside. The screen fades to darkness leaving Mia standing, gazing outwardly at the pianist. Seb gets up, barging past a startled Mia and completely ignoring her attempts to talk as he leaves. The film then flips perspective into Sebastian’s life. Just like Mia, he’s pursuing a dream, though not for stardom, but to resurrect an old jazz club to its former glory. He’s living in a grubby apartment, driving without a licence and practising steadfastly on his piano whilst doing small gigs in restaurants and clubs just to get by. “I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired then I’m going to hit back” he tells his sister after the latter attempts an intervention of  sorts.

The third time our charismatic duo meet is at a pool party. Seb having been fired from his previous gig at the restaurant is now part of a dodgy, 80s tribute band and wearing an equally horrendous outfit. Mia spotting him immediately, gets her revenge following the cold shoulder treatment from the mystery man. She requests ‘I Run’ and mimes along mockingly, as Seb positively exuding surliness is forced to play the synth instrumental. Afterwards the pair finally get chatting, the great chemistry between the two becomes immediately apparent and they both end up going for a walk before diving into a cool little tap dance sequence, singing ‘A Lovely Night’ and my what a lovely night it is with the gorgeous violet sky and sparkling lights of the city forming a simply breathtaking backdrop. There’s even lamppost in there, providing a cool little nod to Singin’ in the Rain.

After this moment the pair become entangled in a relationship sprawling the four seasons in a city seemingly blessed with eternal sunshine. The names literally popping up at various points, effectively separate the film into different acts. All seems to be well between our loved up couple. Mia encourages Seb to pursue his dream of opening the jazz club and likewise he pushes for her one-woman show to become a reality, hopefully providing a platform to further success. Though after overhearing her doubting mother and in desperate need of cash to make any of it possible, Seb decides to join an old acquaintance Keith’s (John Legend) jazz/rock band. This becomes an immediate success, earning him a decent pay check finally and he heads out touring shortly after. It’s at this point where the cracks first begin to show; highlighting the overarching theme of the film really. The seemingly incompatibility of pursuing an ambitious career in show business whilst maintaining a long term, loving relationship. There’s a fantastic scene between the two at this point the film which encapsulates this perfectly. During a surprise dinner they have a painful argument about their relationship after Mia hints at Seb selling out on his dream for success and neglecting their relationship whilst away.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are pure magic in this. The on screen chemistry between the two is palpable, which given it’s their third time starring opposite each other, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Stone puts in a fantastic performance as the down in her luck actress and Gosling plays the brooding, often moody, jazz obsessed Seb with equal excellence. Learning to play the piano parts himself over an intense three month period, he looks and sounds the part of a pianist and his heartbreaking performance of Mia and Sebastian’s theme in the final scene is filled with pure emotion. Neither are perfect singers nor dancers by any means, but they do enough in that department.

Visually, it’s a complete masterpiece. Full of rich, vibrant colours and breathtakingly beautiful wide shots. The cinematography is utterly majestic and a testament to Linus Sandgren’s talents. I genuinely didn’t think anything would touch Arrival in that department, but this comes close. Musically, the score is spectacular. The string arrangements, delicate little harp and woodwind instrumentals are pure bliss and only serve to add to the films magic. The accompanying songs such as; City of Stars and the aforementioned Mia and Seb theme are catchy and will stick in the mind for a few days afterwards.

As a person who’s not mad on musicals, I didn’t expect to enjoy this and was pleasantly surprised at just how much it managed to draw me in. I would highly recommend this to anyone.

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