A performance that captivated critics as it premiered at festivals across the globe last year, “La La Land” finally tap-danced its way into British cinemas on the 13th of January. With a fierce US fanbase singing its praises and promos emblazoned with more stars than Andromeda, this film stands firmly in the tracks of the Hype Train. But is La La Land nimble enough to jump aboard and ride into the sunset of Classic cinema? Or does a flat-footed routine leave it pulverised under the wheels of over-expectation?
It’s a simple tale: an intrepid wannabe Hollywood actress meets a down-on-his-luck Jazz musician. Love brings them together; success threatens to tear them apart. That really is the long and short of it. But without being bogged down by complexities, the characters and picture itself all have plenty of space to nail each chapter of the story. And they do just that.
Let’s start with Emma Stone. She’s as wonderful as ever, applying every emotion in her arsenal to the role of Mia with an endearing, heartbreaking authenticity. Another Emma (of the Watson variety) was originally lined up for the part, and while she could most certainly hit the dramatic notes, the comedy in La La Land is far better suited to Stone. She’s always been a natural in delivery and timing, and she cruises through the humour like only a handful of actresses could.
And on the subject of being funny, Ryan Gosling. Last year. The Nice Guys. Do yourself a favour and watch 2016’s most underrated comedy film, in which Gosling is the best thing about it. With that rant aside, his acting as Sebastian is as good as it needs to be here, with a charming detachment for Mia that evolves into understated love. But Sebastian’s true passion lies in music, and in that respect, Gosling has gone above and beyond. Call it dedication, musical method acting or whatever you want – the former rom-com heartbreak kid practised the piano for 2 hours every day over six weeks to make Sebastian as authentic as possible. Every one of his performances is genuine.
Damian Chazelle has always flexed his ability to create dynamic duos in his scripts – two characters that seem like exaggerations of real people, yet feel totally believable in their interactions with each other. He couldn’t have picked a better set with Stone and Gosling. Throughout their flirtatious quips, charming duets and painful arguments, their chemistry is undeniable.
And the believability of this relationship is never threatened by Jazz hands and sing-alongs. For a film that frames itself as a musical, La La Land is actually fairly sparse in terms of show tunes – and this ends up striking a sensible balance. Seb and Mia’s sunset tap-dances and tender duets on the piano feel incidental rather than derivative – like the culminations of chapters in their starcrossed story.
The final element that brings this film to life is Damian Chazelle’s directing, and La La Land wastes no time in showing off its moves. The picture kicks off with a crowd of synchronised performers prancing around a gridlocked L.A. highway. It’s a joyous opening sequence matched by nimble camerawork that captures the whole routine in a single take, and this inventive cinematography carries on throughout the film with lighting tricks and more one-shots on the musical numbers. It does feel like Chazelle gets a little carried away with himself at times, with a scene at the Griffith Observatory transcending elegance and simply becoming outrageous.
For the most part, La La Land is as subtle as an exploding pair of neon dancing shoes, and may overstep the boundaries of taste for some moviegoers. It’s clearly Oscar-bait for the Hollywood Head Honchos – a bold and borderline pretentious picture that captures a passion for cinema, dance and Jazz. But it delivers itself in a brisk and strictly fun-loving fashion. While not being to everyone’s tastes, you can’t deny the craft that brings La La Land together.