Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash follow-up is an equally dazzling piece of intoxicating cinematic magic.
Audiences in the UK and Ireland (including us) like to bemoan the distribution model that sees major Oscar contenders delayed for cinema release until January and February, long after most American critics have published their praise for said films. However, in the case of La La Land, a mid-January release is fitting and welcome. For Damien Chazelle’s film, a colourful and life-affirming musical romance with a stupendous soundtrack of original songs, is joyful enough to cure even the bluest January blues.
Chazelle, who stunned us with his breathless drumming thriller Whiplash in 2014, has created an homage to classic Hollywood and the golden era of movie musicals that feels utterly fresh and contemporary, with two central characters (Ryan Gosling’s jazz pianist Sebastian and Emma Stone’s actress Mia) that audiences are guaranteed to fall madly in love with at first sight. He has, in short, directed his second masterpiece within two years of his first, essentially validating himself as the finest American filmmaker of his generation. From its opening single-take dance sequence to its unique narrative structure, La La Land is a glorious gift that surprises and delights more than it has any right to, and injects into the viewer’s soaring heart the passionate desire to live in a world where casual flirtation can erupt into song in a split-second, where art can triumph over commerce and dreams can be made reality through sheer human persistence.
Gosling and Stone are, without exaggeration, the most perfectly-cast screen couple of this decade. His restrained sex appeal and casual intelligence; her electric unpredictability and worldly sense of experience: this pair are a treat to watch and a performing force of nature. Though neither the greatest singers nor dancers in the world, they occupy their Gene Kelly/Judy Garland-esque roles with irresistible charm. Even John Legend, an artist of questionable talent, manages to do his best work ever– who wouldn’t succeed when surrounded by the ridiculous talent of Chazelle, Stone, Gosling and composer Justin Hurwitz? While constantly alluding to everything from Casablanca to Rebel Without A Cause, it never once feels that La La Land is merely ticking off its touchstones, nor does it appear (unlike 2011’s The Artist) a mere inferior tribute to a genre. Very much rooted in present day Los Angeles (or at least a slightly more cheerful version where you-know-who didn’t win the election), this is a film that can stand alongside- not beneath- the musicals from which it takes inspiration. It segues from total fantasy (some low-key moonlit flying) to relative realism (Sebastian’s financial woes soon begin to trouble the couple) smoothly and without losing its smile-triggering exultation.
Whiplash proved that Chazelle knows how to tell a story about music, and with La La Land he tells a story with music that explores the relationship between cinema and jazz and the almighty importance of both to living an interesting life. J.K. Simmons makes a brief appearance as a version of his Terence Fletcher, while Chazelle shoots jazz club performances with the same visceral urgency he wowed us with two years ago. It’s a testament to the clarity of his artistic voice that one can spot La La Land‘s most personal elements as we did in Whiplash: in an argument scene between Mia and Sebastian, Stone dons an identical outfit to that worn by Melissa Benoist in Whiplash‘s equivalent sequence. Chazelle obviously has a good memory of his ex-girlfriends’ wardrobe choices. It’s tremendously heartening to see such a personal project released on such a grand scale, and one only hopes Chazelle and Gosling are able to bring something of their own to their next project, a biopic of Neil Armstrong.
2016, it’s fare to say, wasn’t the best of years. January always sucks. Cinema in its purest form is a medium of escapism, of internalised distraction in a dark room. Rarely is this tradition so excellently adhered-to as in a film like La La Land: a project of momentous emotional strength, relentless creative; with one eye on the past and one firmly on the future. Deeply human and profoundly euphoric, Damien Chazelle has made a magnificent love letter to the movies, and one of the finest films of recent years.