Written and directed by Academy Award nominee Damien Chazelle, La La Land tells the story of Mia, an aspiring actress, and Sebastian, a dedicated jazz musician, who are struggling to make ends meet in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts. Set in modern day Los Angeles, this original musical about everyday life explores the joy and pain of pursuing your dreams.
2016 was to many people a terrible year. The political landscape changed (we don’t know if it was for better or worse just yet). Many of our role models that we grew up watching or listening to had passed away. For me it was 50/50: alright first half, amazing second half. Within that amazing second half, in the evening of Friday October 7th at the Odeon Leicester Square, I was lucky enough to grab a ticket to the headline gala screening of “La La Land” at the BFI London Film Festival. The seat was terrible (on the side and way up high) but I didn’t care. That was just a tiny footnote of the 130 minutes of what I had watched. Because what I watched wasn’t just a film, it was something special. And after 3 months since that evening, it has finally been released this week here in the UK, and what a way to kick off 2017. La La Land is a musical masterpiece. A joyous, modern classic. Be prepared to read a lot of gushing below.
Mia (Emma Stone) has moved to LA to become an aspiring actress. Her only form of income is working as a barista in a café located at a studio lot. She goes to audition after audition trying to get that big break. But she gets rejected…a lot. And it isn’t just a simple rejection. At times they are brutal. Can she carry on taking this rejection any longer and become the actress she dreams to be? Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a talented but struggling jazz pianist. A man who feels that the art of jazz is dying and it’s his mission to save it. But his only source of income is playing Christmas tunes at restaurants or being hired by cover bands to play at costume parties. Can he achieve his dream of being the manager of his own jazz club one day?
It’s a pretty simple romantic story of two struggling performers who end up having a chance meeting one evening, and together aspire each other to follow their dreams and never give up. What’s so special about that? You and I have seen that a million times on screen. But if it’s written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the man who wrote and directed the sublime “Whiplash” (a film which is in the complete opposite spectrum to La La Land), and something he has been trying to get made for 6 years, you know there’s going to be a twist. From the moment the film opens to the moment it ends, it’s like watching a beautiful painting. The screen is full of gorgeous colours, the set designs are eye-popping, and Los Angeles has never looked so sun-soaked stunning on film. It’s a modern film but Chazelle pays so much homage to the golden era of Hollywood in the 30s’, 40s’ and 50s’ it feels nostalgic. The time when Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers were dancing and singing their way into the hearts of viewers with films like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Top Hat”. But its most notable influence is “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” by Jacques Demy, given the fusion of realism and dream like sequences in both.
Now in their third film together, Stone and Gosling are definitely this generation’s classic film couple. I couldn’t think of anyone else more suitable to play the role of Mia and Sebastian. It’s their career-defining performances, especially from Emma Stone. Gosling is funny and charming throughout the film, but Stone gives us the rainbow of acting as her character goes through everything a person does to try to make their dreams come true. Of course we see them singing and dancing throughout the film but they’re not the best singers and dancers in the world. And they’re not supposed to be. These characters are people who are trying to achieve their dreams, their falling in love, and going through heart break like all of us are every day in our lives. Chazelle makes sure he wants the viewers to feel that this is realistic and something that they could see themselves being in and not be unfathomable, but also at the same time concoct up something so extravagant to express how they feel in particular moments. For example, the moment you fall in love feels like you’re literally dancing in the stars, or when you feel lost, the world around you literally feels like it’s stopped. It’s breath-taking to watch (credit needs to also be given to cinematographer Linus Sandgren and editor Tom Cross) but at only 31, Chazelle has stamped his mark on Hollywood as one of the best visionary directors out there.
I can’t finish this review without mentioning the key component of the film, the music. Justin Hurwitz has written and composed a beautiful soundtrack with some of the catchiest songs you could find in a musical. From elaborate orchestrations to just a simple piano solo, it weaves its way through your ears, winning your heart instantly. It’s got big production numbers and ballads that any classic musical would have but enough that wouldn’t put you off. It’s perfect for the (at times insane) choreographed dance numbers this film has (bravo Mandy Moore!), and has two sequences both at the start and the end of the films that should be preserved in the historical vaults of the best moments from film that has ever graced our screens. They pay for the ticket price alone as it’s unlike anything you have ever seen.
It will make you smile. It will make you cry. It will make you believe in Hollywood making great musicals again. It will make people who hate musicals start loving them. But above all else, it will make you a believer. Make you believe that you can achieve your dreams. This is for the hopeful. This is for the imaginers. This is a love letter for the era gone by. La La Land is a masterpiece that everyone should watch…again…and again…and again.