Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend
Screened at the LFF on 16 October and released in the UK on 13 January 2017.
About this time in 2014 I emerged from a screening at the London Film Festival feeling like I was six foot off the ground. It’s not often a film affects me that way, but Whiplash was no ordinary film. I’ve been banging on about it ever since.
It was obvious from the film that director Damien Chazelle was just a wee bit out of the ordinary and his latest, La La Land, had been trumpeted extensively well in advance of 2016’s LFF. Universally loved at Venice, and with a Best Actress trophy for Emma Stone, it’s tap danced its way to the head of the awards queue and is currently the hot favourite for all the Best Picture gongs going. So it’s no wonder that the queue for the LFF press screening was the longest I’ve ever seen and, by all accounts, 100 people simply didn’t get through the door.
When a film gathers a reputation so early – it doesn’t go on general release in this country until next year – it’s all too easy to be over-excited and then feel let down when you see the film. Even more so when the director’s first film was so outstanding. Has he done it again?
You can’t criticise him for being stuck in a creative rut, that’s for sure. From the music college hot house of Whiplash, we’re in modern Los Angeles in a story that’s rejoices in the tradition of the Hollywood musical. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) a pianist and jazz devotee. Their first few meetings don’t promise much, but romance blossoms and they seem the ideal couple. When success comes calling on him, it starts to drive them apart as they have to choose between their respective ambitions and dreams and each other.
In a year that’s been stuffed with re-makes and re-boots, one reason why the film stands out is that’s a genuinely original musical, not a stage adaptation. And that’s decidedly unusual. The music is by Justin Hurwitz, who was also involved in the music for Whiplash.
There’s no mistaking this is a Chazelle film. Jazz runs through its veins and he’s a well-known lover of the genre. And Sebastian is just as passionate about it, almost as much as Fletcher and his pupils in Whiplash, but Sebastian is such a purist that he’s stuck in a timewarp, wanting to keep the music as it is, rather than moving forward. Yet, when he gets the opportunity to join a high profile band, run by Keith (John Legend in a nod towards contemporary culture) and which plays a mixture of contemporary jazz and something more adventurous, he has to learn to adapt to achieve his dream. Compromise, in other words.
Chazelle’s love of scalpel precision editing is still there, shots changing with the tick of the clock and giving the film all the pace and energy that we saw in Whiplash. Its two main stars are perfectly cast – who would have thought that Gosling was such an elegant hoofer? – and have genuine on screen chemistry. Their banter is slick, dry and always convincing, as is the way they look at each other. There are so many nods and references to other films and performers that I lost count. And the opening song and dance sequence, set in a traffic jam on the freeway, is a show-stopper – a real case of “now follow that”. What we should have done in the queue waiting for the screening.
It’s a film with a twinkle in its eye and a spring in its step. That twinkle is very knowing, not just because of all the references to other movies, but because Chazelle has matured as a director and is totally aware of what he’s doing. While the dance sequences are little fantasies in their own right, they’re always grounded in reality. That first one on the freeway, for instance, or when Gosling and Stone are building up to a dance in the Hollywood hills. As they talk, she changes out of her heels and into her dancing shoes.
There’s a serious amount to like, if not love, about La La Land. Yet, for me, there wasn’t the adrenalin rush that went with Whiplash. Why? This time round, I had an idea of what to expect from Chazelle: he’s more of a known quantity now and he knows it. He’s matured, and that means the raw energy, the sense of the film being slightly rough around the edges, aren’t there and nor is the thrill of discovering something new.
However, it does most certainly live up to its reputation, in its performances, style, music and the whole kit and caboodle. And it’s set the bar extremely high. I may not have felt like I was six feet off the ground afterwards, but I do confess to attempting to tap dance in the lift afterwards – to the tune of City Of Stars, of course. It’s just as well nobody else was there.
La La Land has a final screening at the London Film Festival on 16 October and is released around the UK on 13 January 2017.