Remember movie musicals? You know, the big sweeping MGM-style pictures, the kind they really don’t make any more? Well, clearly nobody told director Damien Chazelle, because, apart from a few subtle nods to the modern age, that’s pretty much what he gives us here. Apparently this is a long-cherished project for him, one that predates Whiplash, the picture that first propelled him into the public eye. Essentially, La La Land is a great big glittering love letter to LA and the creative industries that serve it.
The opening sequence pretty much sets out Chazelle’s stall. There’s a freeway full of gridlocked traffic. A girl in a car begins to sing a song. She gets out of the car and dances a few steps and then the guy in the next car steps out and joins her. Pretty soon, hundreds of people are following their example, offering a brilliantly choreographed routine that is as audacious as it is delightful. It’s a wonderful start.
Soon we meet our protagonists and wouldn’t you know it, at first they hate each other on sight. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a musician, a jazz obsessive who dreams of opening his own club. Mia (Emma Stone) is a would-be actress, a barista by day, who slogs hopefully through an endless series of auditions for roles she appears to have no real chance of attaining. After their initial conflict, the two start to strike sparks off each other. And before too long, of course, they’re hoofing up a storm and singing most of their dialogue.
And if there’s a bit of this film that isn’t fully realised, it’s the songs. Don’t get me wrong, the jazz-inflected score is strong, yes, but the so-called big numbers aren’t exactly memorable. It says a lot when the tune you come out humming is the Flock of Seagulls song, that’s only there as an example of ‘bad pop’ by the cover band in which Sebastian is forced to play in order to pay his rent. And while you might be able to recall one of the film’s original melodies, chances are that the lyrics will escape you. But look, that seems an almost churlish observation in the midst of so much invention, so much undoubted chutzpah.The cinematography is ravishing and the film simply bristles with invention.
There are echoes here of some of the great movie musicals: A Star Is Born, An American in Paris… and then there are other scenes that are refreshingly original. Stone is particularly good, especially in an early scene where she auditions for a character receiving bad news over the phone and you feel like shouting at the casting directors who aren’t taking enough notice of her!
Of course, these kind of movies traditionally have a happy ending and I have to applaud Chazelle for resisting that temptation, even if the alternative he offers may be a cleverly devised way of him having his cake and eating it.
But what a cake! Delicious, delightful and ultimately satisfying. If you miss those old-time musicals, this one is undoubtedly for you.