La La Land – Film review


There are a lot of reasons that this film shouldn’t have appealed to me. I don’t particularly like musicals. I’m not a fan of Ryan Gosling. Films about the magic of Hollywood feel a bit too much like backslapping to me too. So there are three solid reasons I should have stayed away from this film. I didn’t though, and I’m pleased I went to see it.

It’s a film that doesn’t contain many surprises but is so absorbing and charming that it was impossible for me to not get swept along with the story. It was exactly what good cinema should be: pure escapism.

A song and dance

There’s something I find intensely irritating about stories that stop for five to ten minutes so the cast can prance around for a while. I usually find musicals frustrating to watch and want to skip through the big set pieces and just get on with the actual story.

I didn’t have that feeling with this film, the music and dancing were all complimentary to the story and in many cases told the story instead of the dialogue. The scenes where Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sing together where particularly good.

Both main stars dancing and singing were pretty good. Apparently, neither of them are seasoned performers in this area but they managed to hold their own. The only thing I did noticed was that Ryan Gosling’s dance moves often involved a kind of shoe scraping along the floor manoeuvre, which looked a lot like he’d stood in dog shit and was trying to get it off the bottom of his shoe. Once this thought occurred to me I found it a bit distracting. This is probably more of a reflection of my strange mind than Gosling’s dancing though.

The song that won the Golden Globe for best original song, “City of Stars” was a highlight of the film for me. Bits of the song are sung throughout the film but the part where the two leads sing it together is a great moment in the film. Unfortunately, I’ve had the song stuck in my head for the few days since I saw the film. Don’t say you weren’t warned about the earworm potential.

 

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling

Emma Stone’s performance in this film is brilliant. I’ve never thought she was much more than OK in the things I’ve seen her in prior to this film but she really holds the story together. Her massive eyes seem to convey a wide range of emotions all on their own. She’s also funny, particularly in the auditions scenes, where she’s treated like direct by casting directors.

I’m not a fan of Ryan Gosling. I think a lot of his acting ability seems to be based upon him looking a bit moody and being quiet. There’s some of that in this film too but he does well to portray a snobby jazz musician that’s forced to drop his standards for paying work. His performance is more reserved than Stone’s but they have a chemistry on screen that works well and I have to admit that I might have misjudged him previously when I’ve written him off.

One of the little facts I’ve found out since watching the film is that Gosling learned to play the piano during pre-production of the film. This meant that the scenes in the film show him actually playing the music, allowing for long takes where you see him bashing away at the keys. So he’s not only good at staring off into the distance looking moody, he can play the piano too. In fact, he can play piano AND look off into the distance looking moody, so he’s a multi-skilled actor.

Personal relationships vs. professional success

This film is directed and written by Damien Chazelle, famous before this film for making Whiplash, a film about a young drummer and his brilliant but unhinged tutor. On the surface the two films seem very different but music is at the centre of each, in different ways, and the themes of each film are broadly the same.

The central conflict in the middle of each story is a dilemma between choosing personal relationships or pursuing professional goals. In Whiplash the drummer rejects his love interest to focus on his drumming career without distraction. In La La Land both central characters are struggling to make their aspirations reality in LA but opportunities come along for both of them that force them to decide between their career or their relationship.

I honestly don’t know exactly what kind of point the film is trying to make by the end. It might be a happy ending or it might be a sad ending but there’s some room for interpretation. There’s an interesting daydream section near the end which looks at a road-not-travelled scenario which suggests Damien Chazelle doesn’t entirely know what would have been a happy ending here either.

Awards buzz

La La Land has cleaned up at the Golden Globes recently, breaking records for most awards won in a night, and it’s clear from watching this film why it’s done so well. We live in a turbulent world where current affairs are ugly and distasteful, so a film that takes us away for a few hours is a good thing. This film allows us to turn our back on our grimy existence and revel in a lovely version of our world where beautiful people burst into song every fifteen minutes and even the bad times the characters go through seem beautiful and poignant.

So I can understand why awards voters are picking this film for all the major prizes. The two leads are both excellent, the directing is great, the songs stay in your head for days afterwards and even the costumes help to pull you into the world of the story. I wouldn’t be surprised if this film sweeps the boards at most awards ceremonies in 2017.

Rating: 88 out of 100

I think La La Land is a film that people will enjoy for many years to come. There’s a timeless quality to the world the film is set in, the song and dance sections lift the spirits and the acting holds together a story which isn’t original but leaves you with something to think about.