La La Land (2017) Review

La La Land (2016/17)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend.

Outlandishly enjoyable and quietly devastating, Damien Chazelle’s ode to the legendary musicals of classic Hollywood is a visual spectacular and fantastic musical journey that is both funny and moving, and will undoubtedly have you questioning the very nature of fate, the challenges of pursuing your dreams and the logic behind realising them. A true instant classic in every sense that a film can be, La La Land is almost beyond sensational.

From the off, Chazelle and his team are hardly quiet about the film being a musical, with the opening sequence being the sort of over-the-top extravagant dance number you’d likely see in a stage show. A wide array of colours fill the screen and over-the-top dance numbers occupy the majority of each frame, with glorified extras singing about their struggles in Los Angeles’ heat as the rather abrupt sound of a car horn comes to introduce the main protagonists and the reality of the story being told: Los Angeles, at least within the film, is as much a place of discontent and the aggressive rejection of happiness as it is about unbridled joy and success.

At the centre of the movie, and seemingly in control at all times, is the director Damien Chazelle who manages to douse the happy and almost over-the-top beauty of the visual presentation with a sense of inevitable doom and potentially glorious failure. His work in all sectors is that of a filmmaker deeply attached to the themes he’s wishing to present – those that also ran through his first picture Whiplash – the most prominent of which is the chase of the American dream. La La Land therefore works both as a tribute to the classical era of movie musicals but also works to present the inevitable disbanding of the old studio system and the re-imagining of the industry in the decades that followed such musicals, at least on a metaphorical level. On a more literal level, the themes address the journeys of Sebastian (Gosling) and Mia (Stone) who are each at a turning point in their pursuits of artistic fulfilment – as a jazz pianist and actress respectively – in America’s great dream-maker, Hollywood.

The focus of the narrative is on Emma Stone, whose role as a barista turned actress contains the same juxtaposing beauty and destruction as the Hollywood dream itself. Her wide-eyed and hopeful presentation of the character is perfectly suited to the testing and at times rewarding journey on which she embarks, and is matched wonderfully by her partner Ryan Gosling who is seen here as an eternal dreamer and romantic. Stone is clearly at a career high point in this film, with some truly moving moments within the picture coming courtesy of her performance elevating the already very good material. Similarly, Ryan Gosling is as good as he’s ever been, presenting (through his comedy and dance) a sense of self-destruction and hopelessness in the same quietly devastating way that the great Charlie Chaplin once did. Together, they exude the same chemistry that fans of the pair have become accustomed to and provide a rather lovely arc back to the hopelessly romantic days of the Golden Era’s greatest love stories. Their chemistry is never at any point within question and this, in many ways, carries the romantic strand of the story through its more challenging thematic material in the most rewarding of ways. Perhaps most importantly in this regard, their performances and the romance that they exude aids the whole purpose of the film and the questions Chazelle is posing, making for an ultimately more devastating and mind-altering journey.

The narrative is incredibly relatable in how each character is forced to compromise on dreams and disband their original dreamers’ attitudes as time goes on and their priorities change, something that is simply incomparable in its level of effectiveness in comparison to other modern films of its type. In this way, La La Land grows on you – or, more poignantly, into you – as it starts to wipe the veneer of happy and beautiful dreammaking Hollywood away with a saddening authenticity that is driven home by the movie’s sensationally composed score.

Music within any musical is of vast importance, and the composition of La La Land’s main theme is truly uplifting and heartbreaking all at once, depending on which part of the narrative it’s supporting. The movie’s main song, “City of Stars”, is similarly polarising, with its introduction coming as a subtly cautious yet overwhelmingly positive concoction by the movie’s enamoured male lead, and the conclusion of its presentation being nothing short of devastating by the film’s close. Thematically, it acts as a summarisation of the movie’s overarching themes regarding the true cost of the pursuit of happiness, and is a beautiful and haunting aspect of this terrifically put together picture.

The movie is, in every respect, built as an ode to cinema and works towards its purposeful goal of being a ‘classic’; something that is clearly evident in certain portions of the film itself. Despite this at times patronising yet still admirable (and certainly successful) trait, the film still manages to offer a reductive and almost infuriatingly simple and overly typical character introduction to Gosling’s Sebastian via a short interaction with his Sister, a character barely seen throughout the rest of the film and clearly shoe-horned in for some forced character development. In hindsight it seems as if the information gained throughout the sequence was not important enough to the film to be kept in the finished product, with a forced admission to being a ‘hopeless romantic’ seeming more of a juvenile and ill-informed means of introducing the character’s true needs than was necessary. The importance of these less-than-good portions of the film are of a significant enough size to be noticed, yet the movie’s otherworldly visual and musical qualities ensure that these momentary lapses in smart decision making do very little to change the overall reception of the picture as the absolute classic that it undoubtedly is.

Conclusively, La La Land is a must-see movie. Everything from the acting to the writing, and its music to its direction, is of a quality we’ve rarely bared witness to, and the overwhelming sense of history in the making is simply undeniable. For all the ways that it analyses the film industry and the intricacies that it offers beyond those I’ve already referenced, and for the sheer beauty and devastating magnificence of its overall presentation, La La Land must be regarded as an instant classic that may never get old.

23/24

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