La La Land, Review by Calum Maclean

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La La Land
Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Cast – Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Callie Hernandez, J.K Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Tom Everett Scott
Running Time – 128 minutes

Damien Chazelle’s romantic musical comedy drama is currently on course to sweep the 2017 awards season, and less than five minutes into the film’s opening number it’s clear to see why. This is a wonderful film; a classic MGM style musical filtered through a modern romance, with pitch perfect performances, a beautiful score, and direction that crackles with invention.   

La La Land tells the story of young people chasing their dreams in Los Angeles. Opening with a huge choreographed sequence during highway traffic, we see multiple attractive hopefuls abandoning their gridlocked cars to sing and dance, but the reality that they’re not moving forward is always present. From then on the film focuses on two characters; Sebastian (Gosling), a struggling Jazz purist forced to play Christmas carols in restaurants while harbouring ambitions to open his own club, and Mia (Stone), an aspiring actress working as a barista in a movie studio, and attempting to write her own path into the industry with a one woman show. Both actors give career best performances here, with their established onscreen chemistry given its fullest expression in old Hollywood style banter and musical fantasy scenes. As the title suggests, La La Land deals with the necessity of denial to make it in the arts, but one of the most effective aspects of the central relationship is the way the story addresses the sacrifices required to be truly successful in Los Angeles, creating a nicely bittersweet tone in the second half.   

The screenplay and direction by Damien Chazelle are also excellent. Building upon the success of Whiplash, one of the best films of 2014, the sequences and dialogue of La La Land flow with a real sense of musicality, likely influenced by Chazelle’s background as a Jazz musician. From the opening on the highway, to a one take tap duet on a hilltop, and the montage near the film’s conclusion, there is an energy to these scenes that identifies them as the product of one vision and not a franchise committee. These fantastical elements are also grounded by the film’s script, which sparkles comedically in the first half, then allows for a melancholy reality to set in when issues of compromise enter the relationship. One dinner scene captures how quickly misunderstanding and lingering resentment can boil up before either person is fully aware, while earlier exchanges convey their mutual attraction through veiled hostility, in the spirit of classic Hollywood pairings.   

The music of the film, scored by Justin Hurwitz with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is instantly memorable. The whistled melody of City of Stars and Sebastian and Mia’s piano theme linger long after the film has ended, with arrangements ranging from sparing to full orchestra. Neither of the central stars are singers and dancers of the classic musical calibre of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and the late Debbie Reynolds, but that is why the film works. They seem like real people who just happen to be bursting into song, and their vocals have a purity for that. One duet includes laughter at missed notes that has more credibility than a polished performance, and despite the technical flaws, each sequence tells its story perfectly.

La La Land is a hugely enjoyable film. It may suffer from overhype given its near universal acclaim from critics, but that’s simply because it’s hard to find fault with it. The story is compelling, the performances are great, and the soundtrack is catchy and moving. It definitely benefits from being viewed on the big screen to fully appreciate the cinematography of Los Angeles. I will be seeing it again, and recommend it to anyone.

With La La Land and the upcoming release of the brilliant Moonlight, 2017 is off to a cracking start at the cinema.

Calum Maclean, January, 2017

Creative Conversations: AL Kennedy, University of Glasgow Chapel, Monday 16 January 2017
The Bevvy Sisters with The Jerry Cans at Celtic Connections, St Luke's, 27 January, 2017

This section: Calum Maclean – poet and aspiring writer, Cinema, What's On Glasgow West End: cinema, clubs, theatre, music, events, festivals, community and more

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