Review: ‘La La Land’

Jonnie Barrow is amazed by Chazelle’s modern musical, which reinvents a forgotten genre

Source: Flickr

Usually, “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to” is something you expect to hear from a grumpy old man on a park bench complaining about Toblerone shrinkage, but I’ve been hearing it increasingly from people about movies too. In the age of superheroes, CGI, and sequels to everything, where are those old-fashioned movies that moved and inspired us in the golden days?

La La Land is a sincere and heartfelt attempt to recapture the magic of a bygone era: it’s an original musical, filmed in Technicolor Cinemascope, starring two of Hollywood’s most charming actors in the lead roles and featuring a truly toe-tapping soundtrack. It’s no accident that these features sound like they came straight out of the 1950’s—yet the film’s capacity to surprise should not be underestimated after reeling off such familiar ingredients.

The film’s opening dance number is spectacular and fantastically fun, and sets the tone with an ease and a grace, which belies the high-wire act it’s performing. This is a very sure-footed film, fully aware of its cinematic heritage (even explicitly name-dropping Casablanca at one point), yet resolutely remaining its own thing: balancing old-fashioned cinematic notions with a recognisably 21st century outlook, with neat touches such as an extended 1950s-style romantic dance number being brought to an end by an ill-timed iPhone alert. Whenever the film threatens to become saccharine, hints toward a melancholic, harsh undercurrent keep things grounded and engaging.

The film is very aware of its own sweet nature and inherent nostalgia, thematically playing with ideas about respecting tradition, while also creating new stuff, and exploring the trials and triumphs of attempting to fulfil artistic potential. The film is a love song to creativity in its many guises, explicitly spelling out its philosophy in one of its more powerful musical moments: “Here’s to the ones/ who dream/ Foolish, as they may seem/ Here’s to the hearts/ that ache/ Here’s to the mess/ we make”.

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The performances from the whole cast are fantastic. Ryan Gosling doesn’t do much here we haven’t seen him do before, but he’s one of Hollywood’s favourite leading men for a reason, dispensing charm and charisma in spades. Emma Stone’s performance is beautifully judged, and the chemistry between the two is engaging and carries the film almost effortlessly. Both commit themselves admirably to their dance numbers, and Justin Hurwitz’s soundtrack contains some truly wonderful tunes for them to sing, with Stone in particular lending her vocals to many of the films more memorable emotional songs with great impact.

Damien Chazelle does a stellar job in the director’s chair, building on the goodwill generated by his previous film, the Oscar winning Whiplash. Justin Hurwitz’s score is so good you’ll be downloading it on your phone before the credits have finished rolling, and a special shoutout must go to cinematographer Linus Sandgren whose weightless, floating camera lends an ethereal grace to everything from the large-scale dance numbers down to the most intimate small scenes.

The whole film is almost one continual highlight—I laughed, I cried, and I was ultimately moved almost beyond words. I know it’s only January, but if this isn’t the best film that comes out this year, then this is going to be a pretty incredible year for film.