Review: La La Land

 

As I sit on a coach, mid-afternoon, hurrying through the white and green of the Swedish countryside, hushed Nordic tones leaking into my thoughts, my wife asleep on my shoulder, listening to Justin Hurwitz’s sublime score, I feel the need to add a very brief foreword to my review originally written upon the film’s release: why I love La La Land.

I could sit here and pick apart the film, (the head-scratching number of award nominations, its story which sadly grows weaker with every viewing, the questionable casting choices) but I won’t, I mean anyone could couldn’t they?

Film is, of course, my love, with cinematography as my field, and I’ve already proclaimed my affinity for jazz… This film taps into my very core.

I sincerely believe there is something very genuine behind La La Land. The love for jazz. The love for closing your eyes and letting a piece of music tell you a story. The love for the spectacle of film. And the love for creating something beautiful.

The film itself is dark. Masquerading as a colourful, happy musical. The strong opening featuring the undeniably catchy “Another Day Of Sun” hits us straight away with the aura the film is trying to emit. Sure, the sun is shining and everybody is singing and dancing, with enviable grins on their faces, but no one is happy. The sun is their only solace. It also hides the dark truth of living in LA or any bustling metropolis. Everyone is feigning happiness, yet they’re stuck in traffic. Every day they, including our leading lady, struggle with rent, failed auditions, and relationships. Speaking of love: this is a story of heartbreak rather than a fairytale. Mia meets her prince charming in a hopeless town. Both are constantly pushed down but persevere because they’re in love what the person they’re ultimately trying to become… No one gets what they desire without struggling and sacrifices. Do we really end up with the person we should be with? Are we happy… or just faking it until we make it? I know my answer.

La La Land is flawed but Chazelle, Sandgren and Hurwitz have created something special. Not for awards, not for the hype but because they’re all connected. It means something to each one of them.

Damien Chazelle’s musical isn’t perfect, far from it. But at its very heart, it is filmmaking at its best. Taking what makes the medium so special and saying thank you in the greatest possible way. And that’s why the film has earned such high praise from me and why I simply love La La Land.

 

 

La La Land starts with an extravagant explosion. A set piece showing what this film could potentially be. A canvas of bright colours, smiley extras galore and an upbeat catchy song. I will admit, I wanted to clap when the four-minute display finished and the name of the film popped up, but I’m not silly.

I have to admit a couple of other things too: I’m a big fan of Damien Chazelle; Whiplash was great and 10 Cloverfield Lane was my sleeper hit of 2016. That’s just two titles (the latter was only a writing credit) but they were good enough to put him on my radar.

I also love Jazz. Simply adore it. I so desperately wished that wherever I went I was followed by a walking base line. It may be customary for me to have a Britpop tune blaring out of my earphones at any given time of the day but Jazz is the only genre of music that truly invokes any outward emotion from me. From immense joy to exaggerated sadness, and indeed I did find myself tearing up whilst watching La La Land, not because of anything that was happening per say, but because I was so engrossed in the music.

With those disclaimers voiced, I can now say that I loved La La Land. It won me over. Utterly and forever. Especially given the fact that going in I knew that I wasn’t a fan, or at least not completely convinced, of the abilities of the two leads, Emma Stone is just okay and Gosling is… competent. Speaking of Gosling, this movie is just another title that confusingly earns him a Best Actor nomination. Following Half Nelson, Ideas of March etc. I like Ryan Gosling; he’s very nice to look at and now that I know he’s a wiz with ivory I like him even more, but it really doesn’t take much for him to get a nod for an award does it?

The movie more than allows me to forget my uncertainty. After a bit of exposition with Mia, an aspiring actress and Sebastian, a jazz musician dreaming of a bygone era, we reach our next number; a short interlude with Mia and her flatmates, making me think of Seven Brides or South Pacific.

As the film continues, I’m noticing more and more how great the colours are. A palette that uses bright neon and contrasting colours, yet somehow stays subtle. Every scene pops and manages to appear unique. One dance set plays host to one of my favourite shots in any film; A long panoramic of L.A illuminated by a soft purple sky, with a brilliant white street light claiming the focal point (clearly an homage to Walking in the Rain). All this was aided by an extrinsic artificial light but nonetheless will stay with me a long time.

Mia (Emma Stone) and Seb (Ryan Gosling) against an exquisite palette of colour.

The film isn’t without its shortcomings. About halfway through, after an instrumental at the Observatory that aims to sing praise to any number of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers routines, the movie settles into a more traditional love story narrative. The trials that most creative couples go through. This slows the pace down dramatically and the film seems to forget it started with a rip-roaring musical number. But the music, presentation and chemistry between the two leads kept me absorbed. Chazelle solidifies himself in my book as the king of being able to shoot music-focused films, bringing over this talent from Whiplash; knowing how to make a scene primarily involving instruments being played look interesting.

Even with the gross over hype and garnering questionable choices in award nominations, La La Land doesn’t disappoint. The score and soundtrack are impeccable, the cinematography and colours sizzle throughout the entire film, Stone and Gosling have enough chemistry to play off each other and make things believable, and on a whole, the film keeps a steady pace and stays alluring.

La La Land pays tribute to something that actually makes America great; the good old days of the golden era of cinema. Studios like RKO and Paramount, the talkies, stars that flowed effortlessly with class and sophistication, epic productions, storytelling and simple, human values.

Okay, so Hollywood back then wasn’t exactly diverse but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. Jazz is great. Movies are great. Loving one another is great. And we mustn’t forget.

5

Qualitative rating

La La Land beckons its audience with aplomb. Offering an alluring mix of fantastic cinematography, memorable songs, and long forgotten cinematic spectacle. It succeeds in delivering an extraordinary presentation, harking to a simpler time, and solidifying it as one of the best films I’ve seen in recent memory.

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Editor In Chief at The Idle Critic, Cinematographer, husband, dreaming of a bygone era, caught in a Champagne Supernova, sometimes awake. - joseph@theidlecritic.co.uk