La La Land: spoiler-free review

Its opening scene lulls you into thinking you’re about to see just another cheerful, cheesy musical. A traffic jam on a freeway overlooking Los Angeles suddenly breaks into an all-singing, all dancing extravaganza as beautiful people start prancing about as though they’re in an ad for Coca-Cola.

Appearances can be deceptive. It’s only at the end of the song that you realise the whole extravaganza looks like it was filmed in just one take, the same trick that lasted through the whole of 2014’s Birdman.

La La Land is also anything but formulaic in its tale of Sebastian, a struggling musician (Ryan Gosling) and his wannabe actress girlfriend Mia (Emma Stone) who are risking everything to hit the big time in a city of fakes, freaks and shysters.

Its a movie that’s not afraid to remind you that it is movie. Fantasy and reality intertwine just like in those old 1940s musicals, but also in the manner of David Lynch. It doesn’t have the dark edge of the disappointed which made Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) so sinister, but it does let us see Hollywood through both the daydreams and reality of the outsider, making the viewer question what is fact and what is reality.

Apparently, the film had a troubled six-year gestation. Movie moguls refused to finance it due to it being a musical (old-fashioned) about jazz (something that nobody likes). Writer/Director Damien Chazelle thankfully fought to keep his original vision, which is why the film feels so fresh.

Making a musical with all-new songs is a huge gamble, but it is ultimately more rewarding. Disney could get away with it with major features like The Lion King (1994), but they had the animation to fall back on if the songs couldn’t capture the public imagination.

Chazelle and his collaborators had to take a bigger risk, but with singer/songwriters like John Legend on board, the soundtrack is amazing. It’s now clear the musical is back in a big way on both sides of the pond, with last year’s Sing Street also moving away from the ‘juke box musical’ to show that people can still make a hit movie without pinching a soundtrack from Spotify.

Whereas the actors in Sing Street were all schoolkids, La La Land‘s stars are older and slightly bitterer than the classic couple of Hollywood yore. Sebastian in his mid-thirties could clearly make a living from his music alone, but he has fallen on hard times through his obstinate refusal to compromise his vision.

Mia, meanwhile, laps up the humiliation as she is rejected for parts in the most arrogant, offhand way in a series of brutal casting sessions. The movie makes uncomfortable viewing for the bullies who work in casting, but it lets us to see how good Stone is. She manages to be both fragile and strong in the same scene. She really looks like she could be a small-town girl in a world of  plastic artificiality.

Event movies like Avatar (2009) or The Artist (2011) often depend on a trick to pack the viewers in, but they can leave people cold on further viewing. After you’ve been impressed once by Avatar’s 3D effects, or enjoyed The Artist‘s silent-movie homage, the movie has served its purpose. La La Land is an event movie with a lot of heart, and I could have watched the film all over again as soon as it had ended. Believe the hype!