Running Time: 2hr 8mins
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt and John Legend
(Movie House Dublin Rd Preview Screening 04/01/17)
A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.
La La Land arrives on this side of the pond with a record breaking haul at the Golden Globes and a tsunami of buzz. On first impression, it’s hard not to see why. It harks back to the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals with big songs and show stopping dance routines performed (seemingly) in single takes.
Our two leads (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone) are stunningly attractive and both have charisma by the bucket load. Los Angeles has frankly never looked as beautiful on screen as it does here and there hasn’t really been a movie like this for quite some time. It sticks out like a sore thumb rather beautifully much like The Artist did a few years ago: It demands your attention. And that attention, on the whole is justified. The film works best as a paean to those who dare to chase their dreams, to those who know the odds are against them but do it anyway.
Where the film falters however, and what prevents it from being a bona fide classic, is when we get into the much trickier area of telling a love story.
The film starts with an electrifying number called “Another Day of Sun” and the dance routine that accompanies it is simply stunning and shot for real, not on a soundstage, on a down town Los Angeles highway. And that perhaps is a clue to the journey Chazelle wants to take you on. The authenticity and realism of a real live location matched with a defiant burst of a song about not letting disappointments get you down and never giving up because there’s always another day of sun to start over again.
Dreams and reality come to blows and that isn’t really new ground for a film and neither is a frustrated artist (Ryan Gosling’s jazz pianist) falling for an aspiring but also ultimately frustrated actress (Emma Stone). They are clichéd on paper but it is a huge credit to Chazelle, Gosling and Stone that it never feels that way.
The chemistry between Gosling and Stone (who starred together previously in Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad) is a delight to watch as they riff off each other beautifully in the film’s opening comedic scenes. The sparring between the two is just as effective when matters turn more dramatic and Emma Stone in particular shines brightest. The film will likely earn Stone a second Academy Award nomination and it will be hugely deserved because this is really her film.
A stand out scene sees her character Mia at a music gig where Gosling’s Sebastian is playing in a band that is antithetical to Sebastian’s love of jazz and the look of disappointment on her face is heart-breaking. Stone’s eyes, in particular, are deadly weapons and she deploys them to devastating effect here.
And it can’t be emphasised enough just how beautiful, cinematographer Linus Sandgren, makes Los Angeles look. Gosling and Stone’s first dance sequence shot during the brief magic hour at sunset (where the skyline looks perfectly purple) will stay with you long after the credits roll as will the gorgeous music that accompanies it. And it’s still not the most memorable dance sequence in the movie. That honour belongs to the scene set at the Griffith Observatory where Gosling and Stone literally float into the stars.
And yet unlike Chazelle’s second feature Whiplash, where there was a feeling when the film cut to black that you had just seen an instant classic, there is something that prevents me from saying the same of La La Land. Chazelle (31) is a masterful director and when you are a masterful director, you are also, by definition, a skilled manipulator. There’s nothing wrong with manipulation per say.
A film, a good one anyway, usually has a point of view and that point of view doesn’t come out of thin air, that point of view comes from the director. That isn’t to diminish the role of the writer (also Chazelle in this case) but a good director is an interpreter of that material. When manipulation becomes problematic is when you know you should feel something but you just don’t. Or alternatively you do feel something but you’ve been lead there a little too obviously rather than having reached that feeling somewhat more organically. It feels like a bit of a cheat and subconsciously you probably already know this.
It’s a very tricky line to tow and it largely goes back to the maxim “show, don’t tell”. Chazelle doesn’t make the mistake of telling but he uses a time jump in the movie’s third act and time jumps are a dangerous device to use if emotional resonance is what you’re aiming for. It can be a bit of a con in other words when used improperly.
On re-watching Jacques Demy’s 1964 classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which not only uses the same time jump device but some reviewers have compared favourably to La La Land, I discovered what bothered me about La La Land.
It’s nearly perfect up until the third act but it doesn’t earn its ending the way The Umbrellas of Cherbourg does. The music, much like in Umbrellas, is stunning and enveloping but during the movie’s epilogue, I felt a little manipulated. The music and the performances were compelling me to feel something that just wasn’t earned.
La La Land is a stunning film but falls just short of greatness. The music, cinematography and choreography should win all the awards. ALL THE AWARDS. But as the haunting little number that Gosling plays near the beginning plays over the film’s final few shots, some will be moved to tears but if you look a little closer, Chazelle hasn’t quite earned those tears.