29 Dec 2016

Review: La La Land

From Widescreen, 1:14 pm on 29 December 2016

Modern musical La La Land is ingratiating and entertaining hipster nostalgia, Dan Slevin says.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling at magic hour in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling at magic hour in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land Photo: Lionsgate

Back In, I think, the 2004 International Film Festival I saw a documentary called Los Angeles Plays Itself: a long and obsessively compiled essay by Thom Anderson about the history of the City of the Angels on film. The first half was an entertaining look at all the other places on earth that LA has pretended to be in films, like a supporting actor with a disconcertingly familiar face, but the second half was the most interesting. This was the history of the city itself on film, the mythology versus the reality, using clips from dozens of films, from the silent age to what was then the present day.

I thought of it often while watching Damien Chazelle’s new film La La Land, a follow-up to his hit indie Whiplash from 2014. La La Land, as you might guess from the title, is a story that could only come from Los Angeles and the hopeful young wannabes living in it. Having not yet visited the city, I’ll have to leave it to Mr Anderson to confirm the accuracy of the geography (a particular bugbear of his) but I have to say that La La Land appears to get the vibe right.

It’s a small and familiar story. Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) is working in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros lot and dashing off to auditions without ever managing to make a mark. Pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling) wants to open an authentic jazz club (or rather a club for authentically performed jazz) but has only the bread in his jar and a fear that the time for jazz has passed. Over four seasons they meet, fall in love and make some tentative progress towards their respective dreams, progress that only serves to put their relationship under strain.

All the while singing and dancing for this is that other supposedly threatened American art form, the Hollywood musical (with original songs by Justin Hurwitz).

Because of the thinness of the story, this is a film that relies almost entirely on its execution. Thankfully, Chazelle’s fluid direction, the choreography (Mandy Moore), often gorgeous magic hour photography by Linus Sandgren (on Kodak film – another endangered species being fetishized, like vinyl, by these young filmmakers) but most especially the winning performances by the two leads, make for an entertaining couple of hours.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone at the famous Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles for a very special first date in La La Land

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone at the famous Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles for a very special first date in La La Land Photo: Lionsgate

I once described former Mouseketeer Gosling as potentially the Brando of his generation but even the great Marlon would have flinched at the singing, dancing and high quality jazz piano playing required here – no stunt hands. Stone wonderfully reveals herself to be what they call on Broadway a triple threat – acting, singing and dancing – and their chemistry together is palpable and extremely watchable.

But there’s always a ‘but’. The songs are good but there’s not enough of them to make this a classic musical – too many callbacks to the two big numbers instead of a fresh new song.

I’m also not convinced that Chazelle’s manifesto here makes much sense. He wants us to love jazz, old movies and musicals as much as he does, claiming that the modern world of salsa and tapas bars and jazz fusion are threatening these things, but his solution seems to be to preserve them in aspic or put them under glass rather than to let them live, grow, develop and be relevant. Frankly, he’s a bit of a snob.

La La Land is high class hipster nostalgia, desperate to be authentic, but there’s so much actual talent on display – and it’s enjoying itself so much – it’s hard to be too critical.

La La Land is playing in select cinemas across New Zealand now.