What separates a high-quality, enjoyable film from a cinema classic, etched in the public consciousness? Star performances? An unforgettable soundtrack? Resounding, colourful images? This question is a timely one, as La La Land has all three & much, much more; the level of chatter it has created amongst regular and casual movie-goers alike suggests it is on its way to lasting renown. See it now, because the sooner you do, the more time you’ll have to bask – or boogie – in its blossoming reputation.
We open on a less than jolly Los Angeles feature; an endless traffic jam. Suddenly people are out of their cars and up on the bonnets, dancing, singing and spreading pure happiness in the song ‘Another Day of Sun’. It is witty, catchy and deliriously fun, without a doubt one of the best opening scenes of this millennium.
Then it’s down to showbusiness. Mia is a wannabe actress serving coffee to the stars, in touching distance of the life she craves but obstructed by disinterested casting agents and dozens of rivals. Sebastian is a passionate jazz pianist, whose love for his art is less than popular with his restaurant manager boss (J.K. Simmons, doing one scene of his irate Whiplash character). Their lives collide once, then a second time, and in a glorious dance sequence in the Los Angeles dusk (‘A Lovely Night’) it becomes clear that their steps should move forward in time.
After the solipsistic, bloody rage of Whiplash, a sun-drenched danceathon featuring hundreds of extras might seem like a surprise move for a director who doesn’t turn 32 til 19/1/2017 (tomorrow). And yet not; Chazelle has been preparing for this since his first film, a vérité jazz musical called Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench. He was so committed to that project, he briefly left Harvard Film School to complete it. His classmate, roommate and composer Justin Hurwitz scored it, as he did Whiplash & now La La Land; it is because he & Chazelle are so perfectly in sync that this film is so easy to love. What’s more, they know their musical history as well as their movie history; nods to Ingrid Bergman & Casablanca sit comfortably alongside Singin’ In The Rain, while the whole piece is styled very much like Jacques Demy’s 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, starring Catherine Deneuve.
The sun-soaked brightness of that opening scene is maintained throughout the first act or two, with each shot colour-coordinated to perfection; even scenes at night are lit by radiant dresses & fluorescent bar lights. But as Mia & Sebastian get closer to their dreams, both the joy and the colours start to dim. Chazelle developed the idea for the script at a time when he felt shut out from the Hollywood bubble, and there is a persistent awareness of La La Land as a place where compromise and luck are a huge part of ‘making it’. The film comes to reflect the town it portrays; drawing you in with outer beauty, before sucker-punching you with the realities of life. In the beginning, Mia & Sebastian help each other towards their respective goals; as their stories progress, it seems the only way to success is dancing with oneself. Or is it?
As he idles along the pier, Sebastian hums about the ‘City Of Stars’ to a tune that is destined to win Best Song at next month’s Academy Awards (alongside surely a boatful of other statuettes). There can be few brighter stars in the current Hollywood sky than Gosling and Stone. Their complete synchronicity here is several years and films in the making. Crazy, Stupid, Love found its peak with their flirting scenes; Chazelle smartly uses Gosling’s irrepressible charm and Stone’s wide-eyed beauty & natural likeability to delightful effect here. We don’t so much want to be one or the other of them, as both; and more than that, we’re rooting desperately for them to be together. I’d almost give them the Oscars for the ‘A Lovely Night’ scene alone, though there are equal highlights when Mia pours her soul out in an audition and when the pair express their differences in an emerald, Vertigo-inspired light.
Part of the glory of La La Land, & why it should make the graceful leap from fun to fabled, is in its intertwining of drama and dance. The spoilsport’s response to musicals is ‘people don’t just start singing and dancing from nowhere’. In this world of dreamers, brimming with talent but just needing an opportunity to show it, it feels entirely apt that they break into a shimmy at the slightest encouragement. In a classic, well-handled story of love, loss & aspiration, dance and song are excellent outlets for the high emotions they, and we, are feeling. That the whole piece has a dream-like quality is not to say there is nothing at stake; rather it is testament to the free-flowing feel of Chazelle’s work. Experience tells us dreams often fail; when Mia & Sebastian are dancing, anything seems possible.
As you may have gathered from a ubiquitous promo campaign, La La Land is out now. It took big money on its first weekend, with good reason; this is one to see again and again. And again, just for good measure.