**** (out of five)
La La Land arrives with a lot of hype. If you’re in the business of Oscar prognostication, it’s in a 50/50 race for Best Picture with the very different kettle of fish Moonlight. (Neither of these, of course, might come to pass; momentum could easily arise for such bigger fare as Sully, Arrival, Fences, Live By Night or the tiny and bleak Manchester By The Sea.)
It is Damien Chazelle’s dream project, the script he already had in his drawer when his film Whiplash was not only made, but became an Indie hit, a critical darling and a Best Picture nominee. J.K. Simmons won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Chazelle had his moment, his blank cheque, and he cashed it on his Dream Project, an old-school musical he had been developing for years with his musical collaborator (and old school chum) Justin Hurwitz. He’d originally hope to make it for less than a million dollars; ultimately, he had at least thirty times that.
It shows. The opening number, a (perhaps digitally aided) one-take wonder involving an enormous amount of singers, dancers, cars and an LA freeway, is jaw-dropping, a statement of intent that fills the viewer with trust: This is gonna be great! For much of the film that trust is constantly rewarded. Emma Stone, tasked with carrying the film emotionally, appearing in about eighty percent of the scenes, singing, dancing and stealing your heart, is sensational (she must be the Oscar Best Actress front-runner, along with Isabelle Huppert for Elle). Ryan Gosling, very much supporting her, does so with characteristic grace – and a lot of heart. They’re a terrific team.
She plays Mia, an aspiring (and perhaps talented) actress in Los Angeles; he plays Sebastian, an aspiring (and definitely very talented) jazz musician (Chazelle’s signature motif). They fall in love, manage their careers and partake in a stack of original musical numbers along the way.
It’s a true musical, in that characters break out into song and dance when they’re feeling big emotions, and when a musical number is on, anything goes: shoes can appear out of nowhere, skies can lighten or darken, walls can disappear. Certainly the lighting can get jiggy. And, in its depiction of a dame and a dude up against the bright lights of show business in Hollywood, it’s utilising tried-and-true musical formulae, constantly. What’s fascinating is that it’s totally contemporary; the style may be 1953, but the potholes in the freeway are 2015. LA has been art-directed to look magical (there aren’t that many old-school street lamps, I know it) but it’s still modern, lonely, dusty, car-cramped LA, and the casting directors suck.
The original songs by Hurwitz are very good and some are great (if you’ve seen it, I bet you’re humming City of Stars right now). They express the characters’ inner thoughts, they allow them to comment explicitly on their frustrations and longings, they speak of hopes and dreams and, of course, of love. They’re at times plaintive, at times bold and brassy; motifs shimmy throughout. Indeed, it’s a little jarring when Hurwitz’s compositions are supplanted by known music (a sequence at a party incorporating a swathe of famous ‘80s hits) and deliberately different-sounding music (the songs attributed to and performed by a colleague of Sebastian’s, played excellently by John Legend). Stone and Gosling both have fine pipes, Stone in particular, and something about their singing sounds authentic, as though if it were more perfect, it would be less real.
At 128 minutes, the film does feel a little long, and the story definitely slows and muddies in the second act. Because it’s a story based on a thousand others, a story that is part of our collective moviegoing DNA, we’re generally ahead of it, which contributes to the problem. But the ending – and it’s an extended one, a big, ambitious epilogue – is tremendously satisfying. I could feel the large group of critics at the screening I attended sitting on their hands, resisting the uncouth impulse to applaud.