Stylish, flawed and self-aware homage to the Golden Era ★★★★★

What can I say about La La Land that hasn’t already been said by now? After all, by the time it gets to Joe-Blogg’s-public it has already been skinned, sliced open, dissected, stuffed and sewn back together again less graciously than those poor creatures on Crap Taxidermy (please can we make “crapsidermy” a thing?)

I have little knowledge of musicals — they were devoid in my household. Perhaps it was their unabashedly melodramatic nature that made them so unbearable to my mother, who — despite not being a dragon — struggled with silliness and overt joy. Alas, I am my mother’s daughter, reserved and criminally afflicted with overthought and cynicism. I have never watched a Carry On… film (Americans, you’re probably better off) whilst Golden Age Hollywood pomp and ceremony has always felt false and overly articulated. Not once have I twirled in the rain and cried “Gotta dance!”

That aforementioned cynicism reared its head when I first saw La La Land on the cover of Sight and Sound; was this an old film regurgitated from a shallow grave (in some ways, yes — but we’ll get to that) or was it some grotesque, ill-informed adaptation akin to 2012’s Les Miserables? To discover it was a new tale starring two of my favourite actors was a surprise; if it had starred lessor artists than Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling then I am loathe to say that I would have most definitely brushed it off in a heartbeat — but it didn’t — and ultimately it was that factor alone (alright, plus those 10,000 nominations) that convinced me to give it a shot.

For those blissfully uninitiated, La La Land is the tale of Mia — a budding actor who works as a barista — and Sebastian — a jazz pianist cursed with playing Christmas songs in overpriced restaurants. Both are more than accustomed to the unrewarding slog that comes with trying to turn a passionate dream into a reality, whether it be being ignored by a casting director eating a sandwich in an audition or slinging a keytar in an 80s cover band to pay the bills. Their mutual frustration is palpable and relatable; both have a sense that they have potential for something bigger and better yet neither know how to realistically claim their break.

Fate (though I prefer coincidence) entwines the two together — much to their disdain, as both display a mutual dislike for the other that is softened only by Mia’s ribbing of Sebastian’s uptight belief that he is a serious musician — and from then on we are privy to the ups, downs and compromises of their whirlwind relationship. And it is important to call it such, because part of what makes La La Land so compelling is that — despite it being so *nudge-nudge, wink-wink* self-aware — it never satisfies viewers in the way that they presume it will. Just when you think that the pair are home and dry to their happy-ever-after does it start to ungraciously unravel, and only when you think that they will please you by doing the right thing do they disappoint by doing the opposite. They are flawed and, despite the idealised unideal of their individual narratives, all the more human for it.

If it had starred lessor artists than Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling then I am loathe to say that I would have most definitely brushed it off in a heartbeat

This can be stretched to Stone and Gosling themselves, who deliver compelling and committed yet imperfect performances. Wheras classic Hollywood musicals prided themselves on their cut-glass vocals and en-pointe choreography, the charmingly clumsy footwork and occasionally stretched singing only adds to the sense that these characters are just like you. There are moments where a comparatively perfect vocal would have proved a disservice and nowhere near as stirring; take Stone’s aching and melonchy rendition of ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’, her voice cracking as the camera slowly closes in on her tearful face, or Gosling’s down-toned ‘City Of Stars’ (though rest assured, he is no Pierce Brosnan).

It is unclear what is the real anchor of La La Land, whether it is the narrative or the songs. Quite impressively, both balance each other out in equal measure and neither are compromised for the sake of the other. Mia and Sebastian’s theme, which initially begins as a sweet dalliance to their blossoming romance becomes ominous and bittersweet as the tides begin to turn. As the story ticks on, you will come to dread its presence, though whether you like it or not you will be humming it for days.

This is style and substance, and between them collaborative duo, writer and director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz have crafted a score filled with soon-to-be-classic earworms that none could have predicted from their previous jazz-dense (though stunning) soundtrack for Whiplash. Visually, it is a treat, too, be it the single-take show and dance of the striking opening number ‘Another Day Of Sun’ or an intimate, pastel-hued serenade at Sebastian’s piano, time and again will you consciously marvel at the contemporary reimagining of classic filming.

So, is it worth all of the fuss? As a dragonous cynic who has merely viewed Moulin Rouge! and not Chicago — yes! If you, like myself, dread the mere notion of all that floundering and fuss, then you are set to be pleasantly surprised. If you are a vintage America die-hard then you may not get exactly what you were hoping for, but there is enough knowing references to the past to make it pleasingly digestible for the present. *Nudge-nudge, wink-wink*

Watch if:

  • You want to get ahead of awards season
  • You appreciate both style and substance
  • Quirky love stories are up your alley
  • You love a good musical and can sing your childhood Disney tunes word-for-word