I’m almost certain some films are developed to be a studio’s “award film”. The unifying picture that critics rave about, audiences click with and retailers subsequently sell bucket-loads of DVDs to grandmothers and young successful couples. It happens all the time—and a lot of them tend to be period pieces or musicals: Chicago, Les Miserablés, The Artist, Braveheart, Dances with Wolves, all the way back to Oliver! and The Sound of Music. Highly decorated films each; highly stylized in their own ways.
LA LA Land joins these celebrated ranks, taking cues from 40s and 50s big-ticket musicals – showstopper dance sequences, bright primary colours and catchy singalong numbers. Then it does something unexpected –and begging to be watched: it mashes it like a car crash against the cement and lights and palm trees of Los Angeles.
This is modern romanticism – almost a mythologizing of the birth of the Hollywood star, performed by two actors who worked their way through to the centre of the spotlight: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
Stone plays a struggling actor, Mia, scratching out a life as a coffee barista, crossing paths again and again with Gosling as Sebastian, a pianist and jazz fiend. Together they dance and strut and sing their away across the days and nights of Los Angeles streets and backlots, learning and growing and doing all that stuff that people do when you want to deliver a nicely structured screenplay.
Stone and Gosling, who’ve led together before in 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love and 2013’s Gangster Squad (I still hate that name) are united again under the careful – sometimes poignant – direction of Whiplash helmer Damien Chazelle. Like Whiplash, Chazelle’s written and directorial work on LA LA Land is provocative and runs a gamut of emotions – though with a far more genteel, romantic touch. There’s also a J.K. Simmons role – in another nod to Chazelle’s previous critical hit. Plus, if you throw J.K. Simmons in your film, it’s almost assuredly going to be a great scene.
Stone and Gosling both turn in charming performances that stretch their abilities (or perhaps play them up): Stone is a terrific singer and dancer with undeniable chemistry next to Gosling, who spent months learning to play jazz piano for the role. LA LA Land truly succeeds because of them; in the hands of less capable actors or a director with far less vision, the film would’ve teetered off the cliff of bad taste into an abyss of trite, muddled predictability.
Instead, LA LA Land is neither trite or muddled – though it does go through some fairly obvious motions that you’ll see coming. Those beats worked for me, though, since the story it tells is a classic bittersweet romance that needs a certain formula to establish. Still, Chazelle does his best to add some tweaks and twists to the “big” moments – and largely the film feels fresh. I found myself smiling and sighing wistfully, so that’s a win for the team I guess?
A lot of credit must be paid to the score and lyrics by Whiplash collaborator Justin Hurwitz, who orchestrated some wonderful and rousing numbers. Expect this soundtrack to be a favourite amongst the music theatre aficionados and soccer mums with CD players in their Volvos. Rightly so – these are superb tunes. Musicals might not be to everyone’s tastes, but I’d argue they should be; films like this are so approachable and the soundtracks will take you back to simpler times.
That’s kind of the point; midway through the picture, Gosling’s Sebastian waxes on about the slow decay of the popularity of jazz and the loss of an entire art form – all of this a thinly veiled analogy for the loss of the classic musical picture. Chazelle is right on – except that they never really disappeared. LA LA Land joins the ranks of other great, hard-working musicals that sit on the periphery of the cinema landscape, pulling big numbers and high praise in a refreshing reminder that superheroes aren’t the only people jumping around in spandex on screens these days.