I’ve never been one for musicals, so imagine my surprise when, after La La Land’s opening number, I felt like giving a standing ovation. The camera dances through the cars as Los Angeles residents stuck in an interstate jam climb out of their vehicles and break into catchy, show-stopping song. Don’t let that fool you, though: La La Land is more than just a musical. It is a glorious, sun-drenched, Technicolor love letter to classic Hollywood. That happens to have songs in it.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who can’t catch a break. She works in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, across the street from the window Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman looked out of in Casablanca, and even has an old Bergman billboard plastered across her bedroom wall. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a down on his luck jazz musician, obsessed with the pure form of the music, who harbours a dream of opening his own club. The two bump into each other a couple of times, and it isn’t long before they fall for each other.
What follows is a surprisingly candid story of compromise and regret that is punctuated by the occasional musical number. In an unusual move, the songs are actually La La Land’s weakest feature. The opener is a real crowd pleaser that I found myself humming on the way home; but the rest are mostly insubstantial, unmemorable ditties. After the film ended, I found it difficult to remember even one other melody.
Watching the film, though, I was utterly enchanted, but by vision, not sound. The cinematography by Linus Sandgren is breathtaking. The musical set pieces are largely single takes, with the camera sweeping through locations enacting choreography just as precise as the performers. It gives even Emmanuel Lubezki a run for his money. The colour scheme, too, is sublime. Technicolor invades the grit of L.A. as boldly hued costumes and sets pop out against the urban sprawl. During one song, the camera pans from an L.A. lane to a view of the city which, while probably a real location, looked for all the world like a studio backlot.
This is a film which wears its influences on its sleeve. There is a timeless quality to La La Land. No one is going to mistake for a film from sixty years ago, certainly; but the colours, the costumes and the camera harken back to the Golden Age. Bogart, Bergman and Casablanca are name dropped more than once. In fact, it is Casablanca’s theme of compromise that forms the backbone of the film (albeit fighting for your dreams replacing fighting against the Third Reich).
Both leads sell the hell out of this. Gosling’s Sebastian has a little of Rick about him (sans the Café); world-weary, but with a jealously guarded integrity. This is Emma Stone’s film, however. Stone’s Mia runs the gamut from vulnerable, through whimsical, to self-assured. An early audition scene has her engage in a fantastic piece of acting-acting, as her performance is interrupted at the pivotal point and we see her attempt to process the indifference offered to her by the system she has chosen to inhabit. The script is witty, caustic, sentimental and nostalgic, and Gosling and Stone nail it all.
For the most part, La La Land plays out with little artifice. Director Damien Chazelle, despite the delightfully mobile camera and storybook colours, keeps the film firmly grounded in modern day L.A. That changes with the final sequence. I won’t spoil the narrative shenanigans; all I’ll say is that the ending embraces all the cinematic excess of the musicals to which it is paying homage in a gleefully imaginative procession of set pieces.
The songs may be underwhelming, but they are less than half the appeal of La La Land. This is a triumphant, passionate paean to the Golden Age of Hollywood. I may not be in love with the musical as a genre, but Chazelle’s film has shown me why so many others are. It is so full of energy and joy that it entirely deserves that standing ovation I had to refrain myself from giving it.