La La Land

December 16, 2016
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land (2016)
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land (2016)

With seven nominations for this year’s Golden Globes it will be surprising if La La Land doesn’t blitz the coming awards season. 31-year-old writer-director, Damien Chazelle came to prominence with his impressive second feature, Whiplash (2014), described as a horror film about music. Now he has given us a musical that pays homage to the classics of the genre, wagering that even a cynical, disenchanted age like ours is aching to be seduced.

The story is straight out of the textbook: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again. The focus on the two lead characters – Emma Stone’s Mia and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian –  is so complete that the supporting cast fade into the background. Stone’s over-large features make her the perfect complement for Gosling’s understated suavity. She telegraphs every emotion while Gosling relies on a raised eyebrow or a twist at the corner of his mouth. She goggles at us while he squints.

The irony is that the supporting cast is far more proficient at singing and dancing than these stars, who would get a pass mark at best. Stone and Gosling’s dancing is painstakingly correct, and neither has much of a voice.

It is these very frailties that provide the charm – and the contemporaneity. The classic Hollywood musical was choreographed with military precision and performed by perfectionists such as Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In comparison, Stone and Gosling are lead-footed. Their singing will never force Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra off their pedestals.

Does it matter? By making the lovers so palpably human, Chazelle allows us to identify with them in a way that was not possible with the screen deities of the past. They sing and dance because they’re driven by an surge of feeling. Their frail voices and careful steps convey an emotional charge that disarms our critical capacities.

At the same time Chazelle is addressing the status of the musical today, when it has become a comparative rarity, everywhere but Bollywood. The slick production numbers of the past have been replaced by routines with a touch of sadness, as if the lovers recognise the anomalous nature of these songs and dances.

The film’s great achievement is to conjure a romance that makes us believe in the power of love and the need to hold on to your dreams. Yes, it’s as corny as that, and it’s irresistible.

The movie begins with a startling song and dance sequence set during a traffic jam on a flyover. Amid a sea of fuming motorists a girl starts to sing, emerges from her car and struts down the white line. She is joined by one driver after another, in a number called Another Day of Sun, until the freeway is one big stage. Only when the dancers return to their cars and the jam clears do we meet Mia and Sebastian, who snarl at each other from their respective vehicles and exchange insults.

This grumpy opening is the inevitable prelude to love, although it takes two more encounters until they click. We learn that Mia is an aspiring actress and playwright, feeling crushed by a depressing routine of auditions. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who fantasises about opening his own club where the real thing can be played. Until that day arrives he is forced to earn a living plunking out Christmas carols in a restaurant.

Both are dreamers who have come to LA – the “La La Land” of the title – to make it big, but success is elusive. They take strength from the belief they have in each other, but as their careers take off they are gradually forced apart. An unremarkable scenario is enlivened by the quality of Chazelle’s dialogue, which adds a persuasive drama to this confection.

After two decades of banalities from directors such as Woody Allen, who rarely seems to give a damn, it’s exhilarating to find a young director who pays such close attention to the script. When Sebastian is asked: “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?”, it sounds like a question Chazelle has already had to answer.

None of this would be half as engaging if it wasn’t for the sheer beauty of Chazelle’s staging, and the cinematography of Linus Sandgren. The movie is jaw-dropping from start to finish, using bold colour contrasts, such as a yellow dress against a deep mauve backdrop. David Hockney would love it.

La La Land is a billet-doux to the city of Los Angeles, and a celebration of the musical – with overt references to the films of Jacques Demy such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964);  and nods in the direction of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) An American in Paris (1951), and other classics. A more obvious allusion is to Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), perhaps as a way of emphasising the flawed but passionate nature of Mia and Sebastian’s romanticism. Watching the movie prompts them to pay an unlikely midnight visit to the Griffith Observatory, where they dance among the stars.

No musical could succeed without a brace of original songs that play on our emotions and linger in the mind long after we’ve made our way home. Justin Hurwitz has provided the goods, with a melancholy tune called City of Stars, which (annoyingly) I’m still humming.

La La Land
Written & directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K.Simmons
USA, rated M, 128 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review,  Monday 19 December, 2016