It would be fair to say I was a fan of Damien Chazelle’s last film. Whiplash would always be a tough act to follow, and the writer/director made the task all the more daunting by picking a musical, typically a polarising genre. The scale runs from uber-camp so-nuts-we-love-it silliness (Mamma Mia) to deathly, painful seriousness (Les Miserables) and many’s the celebrated actor/director that’s come a cropper trying to pull off a cinematic musical. Not even Daniel Day-Lewis and Tom Cruise could save Nine and Rock of Ages, and who could forget Robert Altman’s Popeye? Oh yeah, everyone.
The simple fact of people bursting into song for no reason is enough to put many people off musical films, and the warning signs are there front and centre when La La Land starts with a huge, old-fashioned musical number on a motorway. It feels like the Channing Tatum scenes from Hail Caesar but played totally straight; the roomful of critics at this festival screening seem to be lapping it up but I’m not sure I can take two more hours of earnest, musical emoting.
Thankfully though, the singing and dancing is tied to some drama, and Chazelle has played a blinder by securing two of the most watchable, charming young things working today for his leads. Emma Stone plays Mia, a waitress running to auditions while she chases her acting dreams, and Ryan Gosling plays jazz-purist pianist Sebastian, trying to reconcile his love of the oldest old-school jazz with a changing musical scene. They meet; there’s love, loss, laughs, and so on. Making it a boy-meets-girl story between Ryan and Emma is a great way of taking the pressure off – they already raised fairly middling fare like Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad with their easy chemistry.
That’s not to take away from Chazelle, who constructs some lovely and unashamedly old-fashioned song and dance numbers, conjuring romance from LA’s sunset-bathed skyline, with some nice comedy moments involving keytars and photoshoots, and plenty of hat-tips to musical classics. The film comes alive whenever Seb and Mia hit the jazz clubs; this is essentially Chazelle’s second consecutive film about the essential purity of jazz (JK Simmons even makes an appearance), and scenes of playing, singing, dancing to and rehearsing jazz are exciting and uplifting. Gosling is a better dancer than singer, and a better actor than both; the bar to clear is Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia and he manages that comfortably.
Emma Stone is great as ever, vulnerable but steely, and her climactic solo number in the last act is a highlight. Without giving anything away, the film’s ending is particularly deft, keeping us emotionally invested right until the end. Chazelle is obviously tremendously talented and at just 31 years old, it’s frightening to think what he can accomplish over the rest of his career. Despite all this though, the film didn’t quite satisfy, for two reasons mainly: firstly it isn’t Whiplash – but what is? The second reason is a little more important: the songs, by Chazelle’s Harvard classmate Justin Hurwitz, aren’t particularly memorable. With the exception of the much-repeated City of Stars, I couldn’t remember a single one afterwards.
Nonetheless, City of Stars will almost certainly win the Oscar for Best Original Song. The film is the odds-on favourite to win Best Picture, because Hollywood loves nothing more than a rose-tinted look at itself, actors, acting, and so on (see recently, for example The Artist, Birdman, Trumbo, Argo, I could go on). That may be the respect in which I found it a bit disappointing – sure, Damien Chazelle can make a perfectly pleasant, cosy look at a couple of good-looking people dancing around in a romanticised version of Hollywood. But do we really need another one of those?
La La Land is released in the UK on 17th January 2017. For more information please visit the website.