La La Land review – worth making a song and dance about

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling lay on the charm in Whiplash director Damien Chazelle’s magical love letter to the golden age of Hollywood

The Australian film-maker Stephan Elliott once jokingly told me that he’d made The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to bring screen musicals back from the grave into which Xanadu had put them. Yet despite reports of their death, musicals have never gone away, providing the backbone of the movie business in key territories such as India, and regularly flourishing elsewhere across the globe. In 2008, Phyllida Lloyd’s film of the Abba-fest Mamma Mia! became a record-breaking UK hit (paving the way for Sunshine on Leith et al), while stage-to-screen adaptations, from Chicago to Les Misérables, have consistently charmed Oscar voters in America.

Alongside Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, early 21st-century cinema has given us everything from Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark to Japanese provocateur Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris and Irish muso John Carney’s trilogy of Once, Begin Again, and Sing Street. Meanwhile, Hairspray and High School Musical, and Disney hits such as Frozen and Moana, have continued to introduce young viewers to the age-old magic of musicals.

Enter La La Land, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s triumphant follow-up to Whiplash, which last week swept the board at the Golden Globes. Since debuting at Venice last year, Chazelle’s second musical (after his jazzy Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench in 2009) has been hailed as doing for the genre what The Artist did for silent movies.

Indeed, from its cheeky “presented in CinemaScope” opening, through its Singin’ in the Rain shenanigans and heavily signposted nods to Casablanca, La La Land invites us to welcome the return of something lost, the revival of a golden age. Yet as delightful as it may be, it no more marks the rebirth of the musical than The Adventures of Priscilla did all those years ago. It is simply a splendid continuation of cinema’s ever-evolving love affair with song and dance.

Ryan Gosling on La La Land: ‘The world is quick to shame you for trying’

We open with a Jacques Demy-style sequence on a gridlocked freeway, where a multicultural chorus of Angelenos pile out of stationary vehicles and twirl across their roofs and bonnets like west coast cousins of the kids from Fame. Caught in the sunny jam are aspiring actor Mia (Emma Stone) and taciturn jazz freak Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), his honking horn breaking her concentration as she rehearses lines for a forthcoming audition. She works in a coffee shop on a studio lot; he gets fired from his piano-playing gig for going musically off-piste. One enchanted evening, they dance in the artificial moonlight and sing about how “you’re not the type for me… I’d never fall for you”. Next thing, he’s taking her to see Rebel Without a Cause at the Rialto and she’s teaching him about staying true to your dreams. “City of stars, are you shining just for me?” sing the young lovers, until compromise comes calling, offering to fill their pockets, but not their hearts…

Shooting the musical numbers in what look like single takes (the opening shot recalls and rivals that of The Player), Chazelle builds upon the visual acrobatics of Whiplash, with Linus Sandgren’s camera weaving, swerving, swooping and flying around the performers in breathtaking fashion. At times, La La Land resembles the missing link between the nostalgic creakiness of Woody Allen’s throwback musical Everyone Says I Love You and the futuristic fluidity of Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi adventure Gravity (not least during a swooning fantasy sequence in the iconic Griffith Observatory). The colours are a symphony of rich reds, gorgeous greens, beautiful blues and scrumptious yellows, while the LA locations combine the street-smart choices of Jim McBride’s Breathless with the strange nocturnal mysteries of David Lynch.

Significantly, citing Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Senegalese 70s drama Touki Bouki and French director Claire Denis’s Djibouti-set Beau Travail as influences, alongside Hollywood staples such as Summer Stock and The Band Wagon, Chazelle has said that he wanted “to make a movie that would embrace the magic of musicals but root it in the rhythms and texture of real life”. To this end, he is aided by a note-perfect Stone (the scene in which she revisits that traffic jam speech is a Brando-esque performance masterclass) and a likably dour Gosling, drawing on his Disney Channel hoofing roots. Both are excellently served by choreographer Mandy Moore, who pushes them just far enough (they’re no Fred and Ginger), along with composer Justin Hurwitz, and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

That Chazelle should cling boldly to a bittersweet melody that recalls the melancholy Happy Endings of Scorsese’s New York, New York only amplifies the joys of La La Land. Like the musical itself, the film has timeless charm and a brave sense of adventure. Bravo!

Contributor

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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