Damien Chazelle / USA / 2016 / 128 mins
At cinemas nationwide now.
‘Here’s to the ones who dream,’ proposes Mia (Emma Stone) in one of La La Land’s pivotal scenes, the space around her darkened, save only for a spotlight – the one she herself has dreamt of her whole life. And if ever there were a cinematic showcase for wish fulfilment, it’s the musical, here making a contemporary comeback as a lifelong reverie of Whiplash director Damien Chazelle.
Taking place, of course, in L.A., the film tells of Mia’s drive to become an actor, a goal that frequently sees her competing against tens of other redheaded women in similar ensembles for roles as generic as “doctor”, “police woman” and “inner city teacher” (‘it’s Dangerous Minds meets The O.C.!’). Only these women are taller, more glamorous, and – with Mia having to rush straight from her day job – certainly less coffee-stained. Meanwhile, across town, pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling) laments the fall of jazz, the art form he has dedicated his life to only to find himself stuck playing cover tunes at restaurants and parties.
Fighting playfully through their pride (Mia bills herself as an actress, not a barista, and Seb is ‘a serious musician’), we soon see the pair united in song, a beautifully filmed sequence finding them overlooking a sunset from the Hollywood hills, the camera gliding alongside them in an unbroken take as a charming tap routine establishes the early frissons of chemistry. A few scenes later, our leads will literally take flight in the build-up to their first kiss, every note of composer Justin Hurwitz’s immaculate score ringing through as they dance against the stars.
What makes Chazelle’s use of the musical shine, however, is that La La Land knows the difference between fantasy and reality. From the parodic opening number in which gridlocked commuters dressed in primary colours leap from their cars to celebrate “Another Day of Sun”, BMX riders and hula hoopers appearing from thin air, it’s clear that these stylised moments represent an ideal. They reflect our emotions at their most hopeful, their most romanticised. Life is not always so and, when it isn’t, Chazelle pulls in the reigns, an immaculately acted dinner table scene instead making use of close-ups, shaky cam and a stripped back shot/reverse shot dynamic.
As with his previous film, La La Land is not concerned simply with whether or not dreams can come true, but with the choices we make to get there. Yet unlike its predecessor, this time Chazelle mostly keeps things light. Indeed, even when Seb’s talents are being wasted, his big break coming as he provides keyboard backing for poppy fluff pieces helmed by his friend Keith (John Legend), there’s little more enjoyable than watching Ryan Gosling wearing a piano key necktie, half-heartedly biting his lip beneath a baseball cap and shades. Truly, this is a story that knows sometimes life’s highs and lows are one and the same.