“I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I’ll hit back.” – This is what Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) yells at his concerned elder sister in La La Land – the bold, retro, tug-at-your-heartstrings musical film from Damien Chazelle, director of the much acclaimed indie darling Whiplash. The quote cannot be anymore apt. Life can really throw a few punches, but so can this wonder of a film.
It is the classic, old-hollywood story. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl lose each other. Boy and girl try everything to find a happy ending.
The boy is Sebastian, a struggling jazz pianist in LA who lives alone in an empty apartment out of unpacked boxes. He is a jazz purist who goes rogue when given a generic Christmas setlist to play at his restaurant gig. When his sister tries to give him a carpet, she cuttingly says he would only accept it if Miles Davis had pissed on it. The girl is Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who works as a barista in a coffee shop in the Warner Brothers lot and who skips out to auditions between breaks. He dreams of opening his own jazz club one day, while she dreams of being the next big thing in tinsel town. He is a traditionalist, while she is quirky, light, whip-smart, always keeping him on his toes. Their meet-cute is in traffic on a Los Angeles highway, she flashing him the finger as he speeds pass in his classic car.
There are many things that can go wrong with a concept like La La Land’s. A throwback musical romance set in modern day Los Angeles? Puh-lease. True, the audience might find the whole thing bizarre at first. A jolt to the system, almost. The film starts with a full song-and-dance number on a highway after all. At one point, our two leads literally fly up into the ceiling of the Griffith Observatory and then proceed to waltz across its starry canvas. For such a film to succeed, there must be no half-measures, and Chazelle manages to dodge all the pitfalls here. His assured direction shines through in every scene, every shot, every camera angle. The colours pop, the songs soar, and the chemistry dazzles.
Gosling is his easy, effortlessly cool self in this. Seeing him on screen, you cannot help but wonder why all men can’t just stroll and tap dance through sunny LA in vintage suit and tie. Stone, on the other hand, simply is the role. It is tailor-made for her, from the hilarious one-liners to the subtle, pent-up moments of drama. A solo performance in the third act of the film catapults her into another stratosphere altogether. This is the pair’s third collaboration (after Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad) and you can see why they keep returning to each other. Astaire and Rogers might have pulled the dance numbers off more naturally, but there is no other on-screen couple in modern day Hollywood with such pure, vital, electric chemistry (Brangelina had had their shot). Gosling seems all suave, the ‘perfect’ romantic lead (hello, The Notebook), but Stone draws out his playful side, challenges his polished persona. In turn, he grounds her lightness and bounces off her charm with bucketloads of his own. It is a shame that Emma Stone cannot be in every Ryan Gosling film, and Ryan Gosling cannot be in every Emma Stone film.
La La Land brings us along to see how Mia and Seb meet, flirt, and fall in love during the first two acts of the film. But as it eases towards the conclusion, we begin to see the cracks starting to show in their relationship. Here, the film takes an emotional, devastating turn, and its most painful punches are delivered. Yes, dreams are all well and good, but pursuing them comes at a price. Love – even when combined with dancing shoes and catchy tunes – can fall short when confronted with life and all that it entails. La La Land is not only for the nostalgic, romantic dreamers. It is also for all those who ever had to let go of someone they love. It is classic, yet fresh. Charming and funny, yet painful and heartbreaking. Sure, the story is told in bright colours and vintage hollywood silhouettes. But somehow, that makes it even more poignant.
Yes, you can roll out all the cliches for La La Land: brilliant; stunning; a treat; ‘they don’t make films like this anymore’. So don’t just dip a toe in it, but wade into it fully. Embrace the madness, if you will. “People love what other people are passionate about,” Mia tells Seb, and La La Land is nothing if not passionate.
RATING: 4.5/5 stars.