Great news everyone: film musicals are back and if La La Land follows up on its promise to sweep the awards this season, we'll be seeing a lot more in future.
Right from the start, there’s no mistaking what this musical romantic comedy-drama is all about. There’s a big, peppy musical song and dance within the first five minutes, with a whole bunch of people stuck in a traffic jam on some American highway. After the grand opening song is done, boom, we’re back in the jam, where our main stars are waiting in their respective cars.
Mia (Emma Stone) is a wannabe actress who works at Warner Bros. but dreams of the big time. Back in her small town, she felt uniquely talented but here she’s just one pretty face lost in a whole sea of pretty faces that want it all.
Mia spends her days juggling coffee shop orders and auditions, while every audition rejection takes its toll on her self-confidence. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who longs for a bygone era in which people listened – really listened – to jazz. He wishes improvised jazz was respected and not dying a slow musical death.
They have a couple of adorable meet-cutes; in one, Sebastian is visibly annoyed as he is forced to ham up a performance of I Ran by A Flock of Seagulls thanks to Mia. In an earlier not-so-cute-meet-cute, Mia is utterly enchanted and moved by his passionate piano performance in a restaurant, but gets the measure of his character when he rudely rebuffs her attempts to talk to him.
Inevitably, predictably even, the leading lady and man go from mutual dislike, to being completely and utterly head-over-heels for each other, to then drifting apart.
Sebastian signs a music contract that goes against what he believes in (the purity of jazz), and Mia bombs during the opening night of a play she wrote with Sebastian's encouragement. This is where the story is: when you take away the singing, the dancing and the music – at its heart, it’s a story about love.
The musical numbers are an absolute treat for the eyes and ears – Emma Stone is light on her feet and her singing is sweetly delicate, and Ryan Gosling’s voice and piano-playing (yes, that really is him playing!) is stunning.
The scene where they sing to each other about how they’re definitely, absolutely, no-way-Jose going to fall for one another is interspersed with some fancy footwork. It’s all very Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – director Damien Chazelle even has the camera pull back for the entire dance-off, showing them head-to-toe in a single take, just like in the old days.
There are further nods to the directing and editing of golden oldies – clever lighting is used in slow solos to filter out everyone but the singer. Numbers with duos or groups make full use of their surroundings, such as when Mia and Sebastian’s nighttime visit to an observatory dissolves into a dreamlike space, where they dance between the stars and on dreamy clouds. One gorgeous musical scene at the end of the film even takes us on a visual and emotional journey.
It's a story of two dreamers who bond over their desires to achieve said dreams, yet find their diverging paths drive a wedge between them. It may be cliched, but that doesn’t really seem to matter so much here. The entire film, from typography to fade-outs, is one big nostalgia trip.
La La Land, which has been nominated for 14 Academy Awards, is drenched in beautiful, vivid colours thanks to it being shot in CinemaScope: the film format favoured by Hollywood in the 1950s. Its use is strikingly different to the crystal clarity of Rogue One, or the CGI-heavy The Great Wall.
There’s a fuzzy quality to the film, a constant reminder that this is all one big fairy tale for the couple and viewers. The backdrops, the people around Mia and Sebastian, the views – they all look fake. But it actually doesn’t detract from the fantasy that’s played out on screen. After all, this isn’t Chazelle’s first rodeo when it comes to bringing MGM-esque musicals back to the big screen: in 2009 he directed a jazz musical film called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, which quietly won acclaim with critics and casual viewers alike.
La La Land is the ultimate antidote to the hyperrealism of recent films. Forget explosions so realistic that you can almost feel the heat from your seats, forget cars that spin three ... four ... wait, five times in mid air in slow-motion (yes, we get it, it’s impressive but we’ve seen it all before), La La Land harkens back to an era of song-and-dance films that never let showy special effects and snappy one-liners take precedence over the story - and we think it really, really works.