When it was first announced, La La Land was one of the films I was most excited for in this Oscar season. With Damien Chazelle directing his follow up to Whiplash, one of my favourite films of 2015, it looked set to be another great film, plus it sees the return of the classic Hollywood musical to the forefront. However, over the past few weeks, I’ve been a bit worried that I would experience a hype backlash for the film, especially since it’s the frontrunner for all the major awards. After watching the film, I have to say that whilst I don’t think it’s the masterpiece that everyone else thinks, La La Land is still a great film.
The plot of La La Land focuses on Sebastian, a jazz piano player struggling to find work, and Mia, an aspiring actress working in a studio coffee shop in between auditions. After running into each other a few times, insulting each other along the way, they eventually become a couple and start working to fulfil their aspirations, Sebastian hoping to open up his own jazz bar, and Mia working on a one-woman play, although there is eventually friction between the couple. The film works as it doesn’t just present a clear narrative in the film for the relationship. There are many points where both parties, but mostly Sebastian, act egotistical and are unwilling to fully support each other. This makes the arguments that occur later on in the film feel believable, providing a strong thematic weight to the film and does a good job of showing the difficulties faced by creative people with a lack of money. There is an issue though with the way jazz is presented in the film, mainly on Sebastian’s end. There are a few points in the film where Sebastian is, for lack of a better term, mansplaining jazz to Mia and there is some elements of discomfort when he joins a band fronted by an old friend of his which takes a more modern take on jazz. There is a bit of a mixed message with this element as well, with points being made about Sebastian needing to move forward with jazz and the song the band plays being a really good song, but the framing of the scenes makes it out to be wrong and a distortion of jazz, it just comes across as muddled. I also have to mention that there’s a brilliant scene at the end of the film filled with pathos, weight and boldness, the rest of the film is elevated by the strength of the ending, which I obviously won’t spoil here, which recasts the rest of the film in a different light and is the thematic gut punch of the film.
What helps La La Land work as well as it does though are the performances. The main thing that is needed for a romance film to work is for the main couple to have chemistry with each other and, as has been proven time and time again, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have this in spades. Every aspect of the film that focuses on the chemistry between the two works brilliantly and without this strong chemistry, the film would fall apart. Individually though the performances are just as strong. Ryan Gosling does a great job at showing Sebastian’s love of jazz, to the point of arrogance, and how blinded he is to anything else besides jazz and Mia. He also does a great job at showing his frustration with everything around him when things start going wrong, mainly related to the band he joins. The best performance in the film though is Emma Stone as Mia. She does a brilliant job showing the struggle that Mia goes through, the lack of attention she is given in the audition room at the start and the feelings of inadequacy she has that result from it and how all the pressure builds on top of her to the point of explosion in the final act. She has the best singing voice in the film, her performance of Audition being filled with so much pain and regret, easily the best performance of a song in a musical since Anne Hathaway’s performance of I Dreamed A Dream in Les Miserable. The rest of the cast are a bit shortchanged though. JK Simmons isn’t in the film anywhere near long enough (although most films could do with more JK Simmons), Rosemarie DeWitt’s character feels a bit pointless and whilst John Legend gives a good performance, as stated earlier, his character is part of a pretty muddled second act.
The technical aspects of La La Land help the film shine as well. There’s this great sheen of classic Hollywood throughout the film, from the colourful costume design to the editing to the production design which makes some great use of matte paintings. Special praise has to go to the cinematography, especially the use of long takes during the songs, most notably with Another Day of Sun, the cinematography working in conjunction with the choreography with the camera acting as a dancer itself. Also in the cinematography, the use of light and shadow in the film is outstanding, some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Even more so than Whiplash, La La Land proves that Damien Chazelle is one of the best new talents working today on a technical level.
As a musical though, the film lives and dies on the strength of its music and La La Land does deliver on the music. The songs are well written, have strong melodies behind them and the singing performances are strong all around, Emma Stone’s performance of Audition (The Fools Who Dream) being the highlight. As stated before, the cinematography in these scenes is excellent and the dance choreography is strong, working with the actors to create dances that fit the mood of the scene and the actions of the characters. If there is a complaint with the songs it’s that the film is a bit top-loaded with the songs resulting in there being a long gap in the film without any songs, a major problem for a musical.
Overall, in achieving it’s goal of bringing back the classic Hollywood musical, La La Land is a resounding success. From the first frame of the film, it oozes classic Hollywood and all the technical elements, the songs and the performances from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone help to create this timeless feel to the film, helping overcome some questionable plot elements and wasted performances. Whilst I wouldn’t rate it as highly as other people, I still see why La La Land has received the level of acclaim it has.
My Rating: 4/5