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!

15 responses to “La La Land: spoiler-free review

  1. Thought your review was very interesting. However, I seem to be in a very small minority on this one. Something just didn’t feel right about it for me.
    I am a Ryan Gosling fan, but he can’t sing. All the knowing, clever, referential ‘homage to the great musical’ fell rather flat for me when the film’s leads didn’t have great voices and couldn’t dance that well either. What is the point of a musical if the stars are fabulous actors, but aren’t really musical? I’ve heard and read plenty of critiques of this movie and cannot for the life of me understand what’s going on. Is this a postmodern, post ironic musical? One reviewer mentioned the charm of amateur singers!! I expect it will win the Oscar with all the hype, but perhaps that says more about the depressing times (Brexit, Trump . . .) we live in than the film being truly a ‘great musical’, in my humble opinion.

    If you’re interested there’s some thoughtful alternative commentary ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of La La Land’ by Geoff Nelson
    and ‘La La Land’s White Jazz Narrative’ by Ira Madison III

    • Personally, I’m not a big musicals fan and I don’t like the excessive show element of those 1940s extravaganzas, so it’s possible that I really enjoyed La La Land, for the same reasons why you didn’t like it!
      I also think it’s arrived at completely the right time. I’ve seen so many depressing movies over the last few years (with Inside Llewyn Davies being the absolute nadir) that it was a relief to sit back and relax with a feel-good movie once again.

  2. Being a bit sad, I actually went to see Ryan Gosling. I am not actually a fan of musicals either, and, yes, I agree with you and thought Inside Llewyn Davies was heartbreakingly depressing by the end. And, by the end La La Land . . .

    • One other Ryan Gosling film that I loved was ‘The Nice Guys’ but it kind of failed to get much traction last year. I would have done a blog on it but I couldn’t think of anything to say at the time (not something I’m usually guilty of!).

  3. I loved Mullholland Drive and also the movie Drive which had a fantastic soundtrack, This is a film I have been meaning to see so will bump it up the list, it will make a nice counterpoint to rewatching The Wire again.

      • May 21st for Twin Peaks! Can’t wait!
        Narcos is great but my copy was the Spanish DVD with subtitles for the English speakers only. They didn’t bother to provide the subtitles for the lengthy sections in Spanish – and as it was Colombian Spanish I often didn’t have a clue about what they were saying. Imagine that for the hard of hearing – they don’t get any subtitles at all! Honestly.

      • It will certainly be an event and a half! I wonder how au fait the regular Spaniard is with the differences in continental language.

  4. You know I was very put off by the posters I’ve seen, however you have changed my mind and I’m definitely going to give it a go. Thank you good sir.

    – esme smiling upon the Cloud