"Here's to the fools who dream."
In a recent interview William Freidkin, director of ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The French Connection’ as well as many other acclaimed features, was asked about the current state of American cinema. As opposed to the doom and gloom “creativity is dead, it was better in our day” statements we may have become used to from industry commentators, he stated “I have seen the future of American cinema, and his name is Damien Chazelle”. Now granted, he is just one person, but for what it’s worth I wholeheartedly agree.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a dedicated jazz musician, after a series of chance encounters they fall in love in Los Angeles. But as their relationship continues to grow, so do their careers, placing a strain on their personal lives as they struggle to achieve their dreams in a city known for making or breaking hearts.
It is difficult to think of a level that Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Land’ does not work on. It appeals to me as a cinephile, as a nostalgic, as a lover of good old fashioned musicals, as someone who appreciates complex human portraits, as a celebration of all that is joyous in the world and simply as someone who enjoys watching good movies. I’m not sure which aspect of it is most remarkable, the engaging characters, fluid camera movements, compelling score or the fact that Chazelle has reawakened the movie musical like no one else for the past fifty years. Logic dictates that film should not be this well rounded, least of all a film belonging to a genre we thought was long gone.
But under a genius filmmaker like Chazelle, we were all proven wrong. Where to start? Well maybe at the start of the film, because from its opening moments ‘La La Land’ is ambitious, funny, intimately engaging and always entertaining. The opening music number in itself is infectious, both in how it incorporates music and displays it. Much of this is of course down to Chazelle, whose script to masterfully use music to advance the story and characters, reinforcing the film’s substance rather than substituting for a lack of one. Neither aspect feels short-changed as the characters and dialogue are given enough time to develop independently, but the music number also feel appropriately employed. They work in tandem to enforce one another, never faltering and never putting a foot wrong.
The only thing that is more impressive than Chazelle’s script is his direction. He moves his camera in such a fluid and intriguing way, especially during his musical numbers. He has made the quick deduction that large spectacles are all the more amazing when viewed as one continuous, spontaneous arrangement, so that is exactly how he stages them. As opposed to using cuts that would remind us we are watching a staged production, Chazelle’s direction makes the each new act feel as impressive to view as it must have been to film. But what’s even more remarkable is how it never feels like a production. The camera possesses such a vibrancy, energy and sense of urgency that invigorates the whole film. Even in the quitter moments there is this joyous sense of wonder to the images Chazelle renders on the screen that one can’t help but stop and marvel at each and every one of them.
It helps that the cinematography helps make those brilliant images even more stunning. By utilizing such a vibrant colour palette ‘La La Land’ never fails to feel as if it has a real beating heart. Beneath all of the glitz and glamour lies a poetic tale that harbours true artistic value, and not only are those styles mixed brilliantly but they feel so intrinsically linked that I had to remind myself I was watching an elegant, poignant and patient musical set in modern Los Angeles. Filmmakers seem to be convinced that there is little joy to be found in setting your film in modern times, and to evoke joy you have to reach into the past. But ‘La La Land’ says different.
But for all its show stopping splendour, it should come as no surprise that ‘La La Land’ crafts a beautifully intimate love story as well. Not only do Sebastian and Mia share brilliant chemistry when together, they work as fully fleshed out individuals when separate. They each have their own passions, dreams and desires and the film seeks to remind the audience of that as often as it can. Part of the films main conceit is that these are two people that arrives in this town to follow their dreams and if that aspect felt underdeveloped the film as a whole would risk falling flat. But such a thing never happens and we want Mia and Sebastian to achieve those dreams almost as much as we want to see them together.
This brings me neatly onto the two actors who happen to be playing Mia and Sebastian. I don’t know which one to mention first as I worry that the one I refer to first will somehow act as an unspoken acknowledgement that I think this half of the duo is slightly superior, when in reality Gosling and Stone are indistinguishable in how brilliant they are. We see Sebastian first so I’ll refer to him first. Gosling is tough and sardonic when we first meet him, but slowly unravels to be such a compelling and passionate character. It is a difficult line to tread to make his gradual revelation believable, as an audience we need to understand that he is not changing but merely revealing part of himself that was always there and his toughness is less of a characteristic and more of a shield to hide how hurt he is, ow how love-struck he is. But Gosling conveys all this and more excellently.
As for Stone, she has never been better. Right from our first glimpse of her she conveys this raw ambition that enforces her character and drives her decisions so much. It is always within the realm of believability that she would be willing to stake her livelihood on her passion because of how brilliantly Stone is at convincing us of her love for acting. Then at times when her career is taking a downturn it seems all the more painful because we can see how deeply Mia cares for this and how much her failure hurts her.
But as previously stated, the two hare such fantastic chemistry that when they are together the effect is even more engaging. They never fail to convince us of this platonic love and shared admiration for one another, all without a single sex scene or even a suggestion of it with some clichéd camera pan over a steamy room. Rather than continually insisting the two characters are attracted to one another the film lets us view that for ourselves. We as an audience can clearly see it through their interaction and their dancing and singing, which is also excellent in itself.
In fact it is not just Stone and Gosling that put in the effort, but literally every solitary actor in the film is working at the height of their talent. Whether it be dancing or singing, or just dialogue on its own the whole production is masterfully strung together as a cohesive whole. In his acying debut John Legend lends his talents very nicely as a fellow musician. Even J.K Simmons lends his hand for a brief supporting role as one of Sebastian’s employers, which despite being a miniscule role is still fantastic but then it would be, after all it is J.K Simmons.
‘La La Land’ is a love letter to cinema, from the references and callbacks to Hollywood classics by directly mentioning ‘Casablanca’ and ‘Notorious’ to its more obscure visual homages to ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ and ‘Sweet Charity’ as well as the fact that the whole thing was shot in Cinemascope. But as much as it is a love letter to movies, it is also a love letter to life itself, for all its wonder and joy, its pain and heartbreak, its hopes and dreams.
Movies like ‘La La Land’ are why I love movies. They’re empathetic, complex, thoughtful, artistic and wonderfully entertaining. A modern masterpiece.