Reviewer: Chris Haydon
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, J.K. Simmons, John Legend & Rosemarie DeWitt
Release Date: 13th January 2017 (UK)
Sometimes the magnitude of a film viewed requires a period of digestion before a rational assessment can be granted. That however is most certainly not the case with Damien Chazelle’s Best Picture-frontrunner La La Land.
From the moment the ravishing primary-coloured Americana fades to black and the traditionalist credits begin to scroll, the spectator is immediately aware that they haven’t just witnessed something truly remarkable, rather experienced something so painfully absent from modern filmmaking: unparalleled joy. They say “they don’t make ’em like they used to”, but Chazelle has only gone and dextrously executed one.
His enigmatic feature beautifully strides between flamboyant and intimate; enabling the audience to feel awe-struck by the electrifying musical numbers, costume design and choreography, yet somehow screen privately to you – the individual – as you share a personal bond with the central pairing of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It is both decadent and reserved; extravagant and nuanced.
The visual construction and composition on offer here is a stark reminder that the Whiplash auteur is no one-trick pony. He and DP Linus Sandgren harness an eccentric and restless frame; one which rapidly rotates and screeches through eye-watering sets like a Crayola-charged rollercoaster. For a film so rustic in form and feeling, it bares a distinctly urgent, modernised process of creation. Chazelle builds on the vibrantly shaking crescendo of his 2014 Oscar-winner and betters it. In every single aesthetic and contextual department.
Moreover, Chazelle understands that music exists as a part of these lives as opposed to reliance on definitive genre structuring. For him, life is a musical, and the fluidity of the songs and sounds simply erupt from the world; carefully manifesting themselves in the environments and scenarios of postmodern Los Angeles. A track here is composed to render, not control, and delicately-plotted reminders of our current cultures are always on-hand to provide a gravitational pull away from the swirling waltz of 1950s nostalgia.
A simply splendid dance routine atop Beverly Hills – one which sways and jives like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – is rudely and expertly interrupted by a nagging iPhone call. One moment the sky is glowing in an ambient quilt of sunset haze, the next the striking fluorescent light of the handsets which dictate to us daily. It is finite details like these which show just how mature and forward-thinking a director like Chazelle is; so much so that it is scarily easy to forget the man is only thirty-one years of age.
It helps to have a duo like Gosling and Stone populating your story, too. We’ve seen them fall for one another before, but never in such a exquisitely beautiful and unmistakably human way. It is easy to share similarities with both Sebastian; a talented jazz pianist scraping through life on scanty tips, clinking keys for empty Christmas carols, and Mia; a twinkly-eyed barista who undertakes soulless auditions day in, day out to fulfil her dream of screen performance, as we see ourselves in their philosophies and personalities.
Both deliver absolutely stunning performances: ones so textured and richly observed. Seb and Mia have lived before we meet them, and their past experiences come to fruition in an explosion of intoxicating emotion, pathos and hilarity. Stone’s naturally gorgeous voice embraces like silk as she warbles and giggles through tracks, whilst Gosling’s dedicated pre-shoot piano training arrives in a whirlwind of thunderous yet sincere sounds; enough to make you want to dance in the aisles before slumping into your folding chair and letting our a heartfelt sob.
A number of the fabulous original songs from composer Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are destined to become iconic. The whimsical whistle of “City of Stars” tingles the heartstrings with a woozy, graceful charm, whilst “Audition” provides a profoundly moving retelling of foolish lovers and cloud-headed dreamers. It’ll be simply criminal if the witty and wise tracks here are not among the many La La Land Academy Award nominations come January.
For a motion picture of 128 minutes, it is remarkable how not even a single cell is wasted. Everything on offer in Chazelle’s magical, frothy and ethereally honest tale is so irrevocably detailed and so intricately designed, that you’ll wonder where the time went, and indeed why it had to conclude. Having said that, the final images are utterly mesmeric; providing the idyllic departure from this radiant symphony of two star-crossed lovers.
It is rare to call a film perfect, but this is no ordinary film. Like a warm embrace, Chazelle’s soulful, poignant and urgent picture has a rare wisdom so desperately void in much studio filmmaking. Balancing homage with uniqueness, and melancholy with palpable bliss, La La Land is the silver-screen voyage the world longed for and needed. A second waltz with Seb and Mia cannot come soon enough…
La La Land screens at the 60th BFI London Film Festival on Saturday 8th & Sunday 16th October