Review: LA LA LAND

By: Jan. 13, 2017
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Although not quite achieving the levels of Hamilton's hype, I will not be alone in taking my seat for La La Land with expectations inflated beyond what is reasonable - surely not everyone wants to see it again, straight away? But Damien Chazelle's movie about movies (and more, much more) delivers and - naturally - I'm going to see it again tomorrow.

The opening sequence's joyous liberation of a kaleidoscope of humanity from the cars that imprison them in all cities, but Los Angeles more than any other (Martin Amis's line in Money about the only way of reaching the other side of the freeway is to be born there, finally debunked 32 years on), sets a tone as well as West Side Story's overture.

Within five minutes, we're primed to spot the Tarantinoesque references to film history (Fame and Singin' in the Rain most obviously, but there are plenty more) and, with a bright sun blazing down on primary colours, we know that optimism - boy, how much do we need that these days? - won't ever be far away.

Though described as a musical, the description "a film with songs" would fit more closely. There's no "Good Morning" nor " Make 'em Laugh", but Justin Hurwitz's music comes in just when needed, the songs lifting the emotional temperature and commercial soft rock counterpointing hard edged jazz to drive home a key narrative without ever labouring the point. There's even a bar or two from A Flock Of Seagulls' much-neglected back catalogue!

Chazelle opts for an Art Deco motif to hold the visuals together and is never afraid to go back to that well for more. Almost by chance, the film becomes a two-hour-long love letter to Los Angeles, not as explicit as Woody Allen's to New York in Manhattan (I'm sure Chazelle has seen that movie a few times - and Annie Hall) but it's there, front and centre, and it's gorgeous. Has a city ever been photographed (by DoP Linus Sandgren) with as much affection in the last 30 years?

If romanticising the freeways and sprawl of LA is one surprise, another comes in the performances of the two stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Neither sings like a pro, and neither dances like a pro, but that conceit works as well here as it fails in Les Miserables. Up on the cinema screen in unforgiving digital projection, neither actor is conventionally beautiful either - at least not by Hollywood standards.

But both connect with each other and then out into the audience with a power I haven't witnessed since, what, The Shawshank Redemption? (It's the visceral quality of this connection that drives the desire to repeat view - as it does for TSR - we just want to spend more time with them).

This couple may be a bit better looking than us, and a bit better at singing and dancing too, but only a bit - so we buy into their dreams and hope their hopes and hurt when they hurt. We invest unashamedly, irresistibly. Stone should be a shoo-in for Best Actress come the Academy Awards: and if you give that to her, you can't not give Gosling his.

Summarising the plot would only make it sound like a love story like any other you've seen - for much of the time it is - and there's a distinct 20 minutes sagging in the visual and acting pyrotechnics while you wait for the lovers to fall out (as they must). That said, the love affair's predictable narrative arc anchors bravura sequences of virtuoso filmmaking, be it Stone and Gosling suddenly taking flight, an unexpected throw forward disrupting a comforting time progression or a heart-wrenching alternate history just to twist the knife a notch or two more.

There's plenty more about how creative people struggle to feel empathy for each other's work, how following a dream can be both so right and so wrong (a sensational scene in which Stone looks straight at Gosling, while he won't catch her eye at all - like men do) and how moral courage really, really matters. Inwardly, I kept nodding to myself saying, "It is like that". I laughed aloud quite often (and alone in my house too) because creative people are like that, they so, so are!

For two hours, I forgot that I was hungry and I remembered being in love - you know, the dull 24/7 ache kind of being in love. Over and over, I felt tears prick my eyes, though whether they were the product of sadness or happiness, I don't know. I do know that the adjective "bittersweet" has never been more appropriate, nor has "sentimental" ever been more deftly sidestepped. The film is a triumph.

And Chezelle isn't yet 32.

La La Land is on general release.

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