Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Dresser – Duke of York’s Theatre

The Dresser - Duke of York's Theatre

Everyone loves a bit of backstage drama and the West End has frequently welcomed successful runs of a number of ‘behind-the-scenes’ comedies – in the last few years alone there have been versions of Noises Off, The Play That Goes Wrong franchise and Harlequinade. But while these shows mock the silliness of actors and play-up the slapstick humour of putting on a play, there is also a darker more tragic side to an endless life on the road, to actors forcing themselves to play the same role night after night, and the difficulties of company hierarchy, which Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play The Dresser illuminates. In order to give an exemplary and memorable onstage performance do the very best actors need to suffer off-stage? And if they do, are there enough people to make sure they go on in time?

Currently playing at The Duke of York’s Theatre after a brief national tour, Reece Shearsmith and Ken Stott take on the leading roles in Harwood’s much-loved tale. It’s an hour before a performance of King Lear and veteran actor “Sir” is missing while his dresser Norman paces anxiously around the tiny dressing room, covering for his famous master. After a beleaguered tour, the icy stage manager decides to cancel the show, but just in time Sir arrives, drunk and emotional. With 30 minutes till curtain up Norman not only has to get his star dressed but deal with his histrionics while reminding him what play he’s doing. Will Sir make it to the stage and even if he does can he get through the performance without giving himself away.

Harwood’s play is largely a two-hander and so much then rests on the chemistry between the leads. A recent acclaimed televised version united Ian McKellen (as Norman) with Anthony Hopkins (as Sir), and while reading any critical reviews of this latest version and you’ll see mention of the 1983 film with Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney which many believed definitive. But nothing in theatre is ever really definitive, and this new version, directed by Sean Foley brings its own interpretation and flavour to the play, while evoking the freedom and defiance of the wartime generation.

In particular the dual relationship with celebrity is one that continues to fascinate us, embodied in The Dresser by the character of Norman who both loves the proximity to greatness that his job affords him, a role of which he is fiercely protective, while simultaneously loathing aspects of the man he has devoted his life to. What is interesting about Shearsmith’s performance is how effectively we see beneath Norman’s obsequious surface to the deeply ingrained bitterness below, yet he continues to value and covet the private access he has to Sir. There is considerable complexity here as Shearsmith presents a man who in a sense has sacrificed his own life and individualism to devoted service, but remains fully cognizant of his master’s flaws and resentful not just of others trying to come between them, but of the lack of gratitude from his employer.

One the most fascinating aspects of this play is seeing these undercurrents slowly emerge, and while the role of Norman is less outwardly showy than Sir, it is, in some ways, trickier to elucidate this bundle of repression, bile and, at times, personal despair. But Norman is far more than a pseudo-butler and Shearsmith plays-up his intelligence and shrewdness in keeping the angry theatre company at bay while he gets Sir stage-ready, as well as having an equally detailed knowledge of Shakespeare plays which comes in handy when frequently correcting his star’s mistakes. Although we clearly see that Norman is superior to his master, we also have to believe that he has invested enough in the relationship to have stayed for decades, and Shearsmith navigates that line very successfully.

By contrast, the role of Sir requires considerably more ebullience, and a kind of entitled indulgence for his behaviour. In Ken Stott’s performance, the audience sees a man who is entirely self-involved and, while incapacitated by drink and its consequences for much of the early part of the play, has little regard for those relying on him to pull it together and put on a show. His emotions seem to teeter on the brink of anger and complete collapse which Stott makes both fascinating and almost sympathetic. In Stott’s take on the character we see Sir continually battling his physical incapacity – brought about by age, drink and exhaustion –becoming a metaphorical tug-of-war between his mind and his body.

Here too we see that the effect of one day of over-imbibing reflects a lifetime of issues that culminate in this mini-breakdown, showing us the tougher side of an artistic life – endless nights on the road, random rooms and a series of failed relationships, alongside the pressure and expectation for a more successful actor that they will deliver a mind-blowing performance every night for the expectant paying audience. Stott’s Sir is certainly petulant and frustrating to manage, arrogant and domineering, but he’s also a man crippled by self-doubt about the rather transactional relationship others have with his artistic credibility.

And this challenge between artistic authenticity and making-do for commercial survival is at the heart of director Sean Foley’s revival, and as we see aspects of their King Lear from backstage, we see how frantically this company try to keep the show on the road with makeshift approaches that mirror their wartime era. These sections have much in common with Noises Off and Harlequinade as they descend into semi-farce, temporarily lifting the more serious tone of the dressing-room scenes, as anxiety over whether the shambling Sir will make it onto the stage after missing several cues and who will operate the thunder machine, becomes acute.

The wider cast is less well drawn by Harwood, giving us a surface engagement with a number of stereotypes including a fading actress, stoney-faced stage manager, novice actress and younger serious thesp, all of whom pop in and out of the action. Her Ladyship (a private joke with Sir) is given added meaning by Harriet Thorpe, emphasising the difficulty of being a lead actress beyond a certain age, who hasn’t achieved anything like the acclaim of her leading man. It’s clear she genuinely cares for him and the character is key to revealing the political factions backstage. There is a tender moment with Selina Cadell’s stage manager whose icy disapproval begins to make sense, but otherwise the creation of the secondary plots is as slapdash as their production of Lear.

The revolving set is used to marvellous effect in both the more intimate shabby dressing room and the expansive backstage scenes, moving seamlessly between them, and reiterating the collision of private and public life that this play considers. Meanwhile the sound design links the experience of a World War Two bombardment with the emotional collapse of this jaded company enduring one more attack from its volatile star player. With our ongoing fascinating with celebrity and their lives off-camera, The Dresser still feels pertinent to our times, especially with Shearsmith and Stott bringing new meaning to its fractious central relationship.

The Dresser is at The Duke of York’s Theatre until 14 January. Tickets start at £10 (although most are from £25) and are also available on Last Minute from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Were We Entertained? Reviewing a Year of Branagh Theatre

branagh-theatre

In a little over two weeks the curtain will come down on The Branagh Theatre Company’s (KBTC) year-long season at The Garrick. It opened last October with The Winter’s Tale and Harlequinade / All on Her Own in repertory – starring acting heavyweights Judi Dench, Michael Pennington and Zoe Wannamaker – it scooped-up the West End transfer of Red Velvet, before French farce The Painkiller in March with Rob Brydon. Romeo and Juliet followed in May with rising stars Lily James and Richard Madden, before ending with the elegiac The Entertainer which opened at the end of August. Twelve months, six plays and several star names later, but what has the company achieved and what does this mean for London theatre?

The concept of the actor-manager goes back almost 500 years but became more common in the Victorian era, with Henry Irving being the most successful, before the professionalization of backstage roles altered the ways in which the commercial and artistic development of shows were managed. Kenneth Branagh’s has himself attempted the role before in the Renaissance Theatre Company from 1987-1992 which combined a variety of fringe, West End and touring shows over several years before branching out into the films that eventually took Branagh away from the theatre. Coming back to it nearly 25 years later is, then, an interesting choice – possible a sense of unfinished business for the youthful Branagh that has culminated in this series of new productions.

In many ways the season felt like a coming together of the last two decades of Branagh’s career, working with people he likes and knows well, while integrating his knowledge of film and TV techniques with his arguable preference for fairly classic-forms of theatre production. The most damning criticism levelled at his productions by the critics has been that they are ‘old-fashioned’, but even if you consider them to be – and I’m not sure I do – there is a place for the traditional alongside the innovative in the London theatre landscape, as the popularity of fairly straightforward touring productions would suggest.

But Branagh and his co-director Rob Ashford have taken risks both in the interpretation of some elements of the text and in the production values that speak to some of the modern trends in current theatre. It was Romeo and Juliet that copped-it most from the critics with what was, in my view, an overly harsh blasting of the interpretation and male lead performance. Instead I saw an attempt to play-up the more comic elements of the text, particularly in the balcony scene which became less mushy and more in tune with out slightly derisory take on modern love, that would appeal to the younger crowd attracted by the TV-star leads.

Likewise critical comment on his interpretation of The Entertainer mostly centred around the fact it wasn’t the same as the Olivier production, whereas Branagh’s interpretation of the lead role was necessarily different and extremely poignant, creating a fluidity between the scenes that is a mark of modern approaches to direction. In difficult circumstances, it added fresh insight into a play that is still tainted by the ghosts of its earlier performers.

The ‘old-fashioned’ tag that dogged the series can also be seen as a deliberate choice and actually part of a wider engagement with the biggest theatrical innovation of the twenty-first century – the live cinema screening. Branagh and Ashford’s presentation of Romeo and Juliet was like a 40s Fellini film in black and white. Now, that shouldn’t be the sole preoccupation of directors, but the way we consume theatre, particularly outside of London, is changing and a cinema broadcast could potentially reach more people in one night than attend an entire run, so it was interesting to see that they quite carefully incorporated ideas on how this would look into their finished stage version. The Winter’s Tale and, this week, The Entertainer were also broadcast so, increasingly production teams have an eye for the cinematic – even when it’s not being broadcast as the spectacular Red Barn currently at the National Theatre demonstrates – and while this may affect the staging and interpretation of live performance to a degree, it’s also something that’s not going away.

We should also remember that this was an inaugural season and without knowing what reaction the suite of productions would elicit or whether there was even a market for them, it seems natural that Branagh and co would play it safe both on the choice of shows and in choosing a bankable cast to attract audiences. It may not seem it now we’ve seen them, but the inclusion of Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade, a 50s slapstick vehicle that was considerably out of fashion, and the French farce The Painkiller were both notable risks among the more sellable Shakespeare and modern classics. Yet critics and audiences generally loved them, adding much needed levity to a dramatic season and giving Branagh in particular a rare chance to show his comedic skill. Harlequinade especially has been given a new lease of life and we may see it crop-up more regularly in regional and touring productions, while the obsession with life behind-the-scenes that the play captures has arguably marked out an audience who may also be interested in the current revival of The Dresser.

As a new company, Branagh Theatre has also relied on star-power to attract audiences, not just the chance to see Branagh himself – having not appeared in London for 8 years – but in enticing well-loved names like Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi to bolster ticket sales. But this is something that every theatre is doing whether it has a company season or not and looking around the West End this year much of what you see is established star vehicles – from No Man’s Land with Stewart and McKellen next door, to Faustus with Kit Harrington, the stage return of Michael Crawford in The Go-Between and a bevy of others. Yet, this season has also given room to acting’s rising stars like Tom Bateman and Jessie Buckley, as well as some fresh-out of drama school graduates who have the chance to learn in exulted company – a training that was also offered to young directors associated with the KBTC. The creation of community and support for development is one of the vital roles a Company structure can play in developing the careers of young performers and the production team – what effect this will have on the individuals involved will be seen in the coming years but, while it may be less obvious to audiences, it is a meaningful way to induct new creatives into the profession.

So what does all of this mean for theatre and where should the KBTC go from here? London is never short of good plays but a Company season always feels a bit special, a collection of plays with something particular to say. And this first grouping took an affectionate look at the nature of theatre and theatre people, as well as examining a particular kind of human desperation – either born of love, loneliness or failure that have made Branagh’s own performances a significant highlight. But there have been companies before and will be again, whether this one survives remains to be seen.

We should hope for a second season in a year or two, but one that having now established itself, can be afford to be more experimental in its allocation of leading roles, in style of production and even in the incorporation of new writing among the classics. The choice of the Garrick was to some degree an unfortunate one, a lovely restored theatre, but the raking is too slight and the curvature of the auditorium so pronounced that many seats have a restricted view – although these were priced accordingly – but maybe somewhere like the Wyndhams would be better.

The commercial success and revenues generated by the inaugural Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season may not be known for some time, but performances always felt full, while, artistically, on balance, it should be considered a success, presenting a variety of interesting and accessible work that created a genuine sense of anticipation and a clear affection among its audiences. Not least, the opportunity to see Branagh himself after so long an interval from the London stage has been a pleasure, and one we should hope will be soon repeated. Roll on season two!

The inaugural season of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company ran from 17 October 2015 – 12 November 2016 (when The Entertainer ends). The Entertainer will be broadcast live to cinemas on Thursday 27 October.


Nocturnal Animals – BFI London Film Festival

nocturnal-animals

Tom Ford is known for making incredibly beautiful things, and his first foray into film-making, A Single Man, managed to combine style and substance to great acclaim. His second feature, Nocturnal Animals, which premiered at the London Film Festival, takes his work in a slightly different direction, adding a somewhat grisly, high-stakes thriller element that contrasts with the beautiful world of a prosperous gallery owner played by Amy Adams.

Insomniac Susan is a rich and renowned art dealer whose latest blockbuster show opens the film – which we see in the opening credits as a warped homage to Bond’s gyrating ladies. But despite her success it’s clear her outwardly perfect life has plenty of cracks; her handsome second husband has failed to attend the opening and rushes off on yet another “business” trip with his mistress, while a growing sense of unreality and emptiness begins to trouble Susan’s quieter moments. Out of the blue her novelist ex-husband sends her the manuscript of his first book, dedicated to her and fulfilling the potential she saw in him during their brief student marriage. But as Susan begins to read, the disturbing morality tale Edward has sent her takes hold and changes her perspective on the past.

Ford’s film is all about the rottenness that exists beneath the surface of things and how people can never escape the consequences of bad choices. In many ways it is a classic revenge tale that takes the audience into three worlds; the first dealing with Susan’s current life, the second the world of the book, and finally Susan’s memories of her first marriage evoked by the story she encounters. Complex as it sounds Ford interweaves the narratives convincingly, creating a film that’s not just a beautiful object but one that aptly reflects its subject matter by being tense, dark and uncomfortable beneath the surface.

Multi-narrative films can be difficult to pull-off but when it works well, such as Christopher Nolan’s Inception, each piece acts like a jigsaw adding depth and meaning to the rest. Here, our protagonist is Susan who, much like the central character in A Single Man, lives in one of those stunning one level, waterside houses that are all glass and extensive space, the type of home that speaks volumes about the lifestyle of the people inside. We also see her in her perfect white-walled gallery, an almost antiseptic environment that is all about surface suggestions of achievement but never seem to actually touch Susan’s inner life.

Amy Adams is superb as Susan, who, with surprisingly little dialogue, is required to convey a detachment from her day-to-day life, a lack of meaning and growing wish to reconnect with an earlier time of purer emotion. Heavily made up as a career woman, as we flit between the present and her student past, we see her former more honest appearance, understanding instantly, as Ford would like us to, that she has become someone that only exists on the surface of herself rather than the creative thinker she once was. The arrival of Edward’s book and her shocked, fearful and perplexed reactions to it are something that wakes her up to herself, which Adams conveys effortlessly.

The second narrative dramatises the plot of the novel Susan is reading about a family forced off the road by some reckless young men while driving along a lonely stretch of Texan desert one night. It’s a classic suspense opener as the family – husband Tony (Jake Gyllehaal), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) – discuss the decision to drive all night to their destination rather than break the journey. Soon they are engaged in a frightening confrontation with another car that harasses them for some miles before forcing them to pull over. The way in which Ford controls the tension here is fascinating, and has much in common with Spielberg’s first movie Duel, in which a faceless lorry driver pursues and attempts to kill a car driver for no apparent reason.

The tension only ratchets up from here on as the family are tormented further by their assailants before a series of dreadful crimes take place. This story, which eventually stretches over several months becomes an almost Shakespearean revenge tragedy in which the inevitability of destruction for all in involved is palpable. Cutting tightly between this and Susan’s reactions, often to a throbbing beat, creates strong associations between the two and it’s no coincidence that Edward’s female characters and his ex-wife have the same shade of red hair.

Jake Gyllenhaal is very affecting as a man set on an unexpected path after a random encounter that changes his life irreparably. Tony’s initial devastation grows into an anxiety for justice that eventually curdles into a thirst for brutal revenge at any cost, which Gyllenhaal convincingly plays. But what makes this section so engaging is the dangerous unpredictability of Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ray, who leads the gang of attackers. Ray is essentially your worst nightmare, someone who initially appears outwardly helpful but with an overconfidence brimming with treacherous intent. He is absolutely in control of every situation and orchestrates the separation of the family with cold-hearted perfection. Remorseless, calculating and even proud of his crimes, Taylor-Johnson’s performance is one of the best portrayals of mercenary mercilessness you’ll see this year.

Gyllenhaal’s weakness as Tony is contrasted with a few interspersed scenes as his ‘real-life’ alter-ego Edward whose young relationship with Susan contrasts, in her mind at least, with the complicated and sullied world she now lives in with the man she left him for. Here Gyllenhaal brings a freshness and ardent youth to Edward’s early dreams to be a novelist, while we get the first hints that he doesn’t deal well with criticism. Ford doesn’t linger too long on these sections but these fragments of memory are just enough to reveal Susan’s mind.

This hankering for simpler, purer times pervades the film and while the novel sections focus on the cost of revenge, it serves to reopen Susan’s mind about her past and the choices she made. But Ford also feeds this through the movie in other ways, particularly in one of the film’s wonderfully comic scenes in the gallery as Susan, facing a woman on her team with ridiculous plastic surgery, talks about a less-is-more ethos, a biting satire of the world Ford sees around him.

Much like A Single Man, Nocturnal Animals is then a film about loss of self, about hankering for a happier time and the inability to ever go back. Ford handles the transition between stories with great confidence, nicely adding to the escalating tension and drama. The storytelling is somewhat linear and for the most part it goes where you expect it to, but Ford creates investment in his leads – and despite the crime story being a meta fiction within a fiction – the rising intensity and the contrast of sleek and gritty styles keep the audience’s attention nonetheless. Nocturnal Animals is not a perfect film, but it is a masterclass in taking a fairly straightforward plot and creating a suspenseful, sleek, beautiful, dark and gripping experience.

Nocturnal Animals was premiered at the London Film Festival and is released nationwide on 4 November in the UK and 18th November – 9 December in the US. More reviews from the Festival will follow as films as released in cinemas.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


American Honey – BFI London Film Festival

american-honey

No one makes films like Andrea Arnold and as her latest, American Honey, receives its premiere at the London Film Festival it’s hard to believe it’s only her fourth, so firmly has she carved her niche as a creator of beautifully-made stories of real working class life. Unlike so many ‘Hollywood-ised’ versions of urban poverty, there’s no sheen of glamour on the people Arnold focuses on, no designer dirt, just an honest account of what you would see in millions of homes, brought to the screen predominantly by a cast of unknown actors who bring a raw vitality to Arnold’s work.

Back in 2009, Arnold burst onto our radar with the astonishing Fish Tank, one of those rare occasions when a film unexpectedly knocks you sideways and lingers in your consciousness. Her tale of a feisty yet vulnerable teenager, Mia (Katie Jarvis), who dreams of becoming a dancer but fettered by her Essex council estate upbringing gets involved with her mum’s new boyfriend, Conor, who ambiguously sits somewhere between a father-figure and a predator (Michael Fassbender). It is an extraordinary film about the particular difficulties of being a young girl growing-up thinking she’s an adult but still a child in many ways, of the vulnerability and invincibility of being a teenager, and finding out who you are.

In her first US-based film, Arnold’s American Honey covers similar themes but with an equally absorbing and epic examination of the challenges of growing up with deprivation and want. At its heart is an exceptional performance by newcomer Sasha Lane who’s kind-hearted, yet strong protagonist Star exposes her vulnerability through a series of reckless escapades. Abandoning her home where she is the primary carer for her much younger sister and brother, while enduring the groping attentions of her step-father, Star spontaneously choses a life on the road with a rag-tag bunch of fellow teens selling magazine-subscriptions for a shady operator named Krystal. Along the way Star falls for senior seller, and Krystal’s supposed lover, Jake, while taking crazy risks to ensure she doesn’t get left behind.

Arnold’s film is a near three hour marathon that, after a brief scene-setting section about Star’s life, follows the group as they move around the south trying to find new markets to offload their wares. As ever with Arnold, the surroundings are pretty grim as the characters move from sleazy motel to sleazy motel, mixing with truckers, Christian middle class home-owners and oil plantation workers in a vision of small-town America that feels real and visceral. It’s never preachy though and like Fish Tank before it, American Honey takes an almost documentary approach to cataloguing the way in which people live, from grimy bedrooms strewn with trashy clothes to homes years-deep in grease and urban decay.

Yet the tone of the film is actually quite optimistic, hopeful and at times even aspirational as Star and her new friends enjoy a sense of freedom being on the road and a wide-eyed enjoyment of the constant newness of the world they experience by being part of this group. By drawing attention to these lives Arnold is actually reminding us that for all the media condescension both in the US and the UK, working class lives are as rich and filled with the same kinds of humanity as any other. Seeing this story through Star’s eyes allows the audience to experience these emotions with her, recognising how normal and rounded they are – from the pain of first love, to the fear of striking out alone and the satisfaction of beginning to find a way forward. And while it may be a long journey, Arnold’s intimate film uses this epic scale to show us that experiences are relative, and vary in personal significance.

Sasha Lane was one of Arnold’s random discoveries and her performance reveals how close to her real life upbringing American Honey is. In a sense, it picks up where Fish Tank finished to consider the consequences of a young girl abandoning the safe and familiar for a life of unknown self-reliance – in essence a coming-of-age tale. Star is a fascinating mix of contradictions, as many 18 year olds are, and having partially raised her siblings, she has a caring and responsible streak that becomes important as the story unfolds. Frequently we see her rescuing and releasing trapped insects – a nice metaphor for her own character situation – offering them a freedom she also craves. But this sense of right is often concealing an enormous vulnerability that allows others to take advantage of her. It is testament to Lane’s layered and impressive performance that Star is seemingly unaware of her own weakness, often recklessly going off with strangers so certain is she that she’ll make a sale, but with little regard for her physical safety. That idea of teenage invincibility is convincingly played and spending three hours with her the audience becomes convinced that, like Mia, she will always be fine.

Arnold also specialises in highly ambiguous male characters, and even at the end you’re never quite sure whether Shia LaBeouf’s Jake is a good guy or not. The only major star name in the film, Jake is Krystal’s number 2, training the new recruits and possibly sleeping with the boss. What develops between Jake and Star is initially a tender love story, as the old-hand is drawn both to her innocence and her willingness to criticise his sales technique. Yet at every turn, Arnold throws obstacles in the way to subvert expectation, never letting Star or us know whether Jake genuinely wants her, or is casually taking advantage. We hear repeatedly from Krystal that he’s also sleeping with her, but Arnold never visually confirms this either way, allowing us to understand Star’s confusion. LaBeouf keeps us guessing and his famous presence never overwhelms or detracts from the freshness of the remaining cast which is a valuable achievement.

The wider group are also a mix of newcomers and famous grandchildren (including Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) but their numerous scenes in the van have the comradely and frustrating feel of endless journeys, as they sing along to music the cast selected themselves, drink, smoke, take drugs and generally have a good time. And while none of them are drawn distinctly, in many ways this is a group of strays, like the random pets they acquire along the way, unwanted and unloved, clinging together for solidarity. Their leader Krystal is superbly played by Riley Keough who ruthlessly recruits and uses lost kids to make money for her scheme, much of which she appears to spend on clothes and beauty products while her exploited team sleep in one room and are forced to fight each other if they generate the least sales. Keough, a little older than her charges, is a brutal presence, happy to sell an idea of their flesh if it will make money and intent on keeping them down, while, as a warped mother-figure, ensuring they look to her for sustenance.

While much of the film takes us through cities and towns, the contrast of these urban environments with nature is ever-present. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan lingers on shots of butterflies on flowers, or vast open fields swaying in the breeze, while the way he captures light gives everything a vibrancy that is beautiful and engaging. Throughout the soundtrack is a mix of thumping rap beats with more introspective sounds that add poignancy, joy and sensitivity at crucial points.

As I said at the start, no one makes films like Andrea Arnold, and American Honey is a phenomenal piece of work that leaves an impact long after the credits role. It will remind you of the pain of growing up and how difficult that transition to adulthood was, while emphasising that everyone feels that way regardless of their backgrounds and experiences. Some may grumble at the length, but despite momentary lapses it is a compelling and beautifully told account of lives we still so rarely see on screen.

American Honey was previewed at the BFI London Film Festival and opens nationwide on 14 October in the UK. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


La La Land – BFI London Film Festival

la-la-land

The London Film Festival is now well underway, and La La Land is one of the most anticipated films being previewed here, having already won huge acclaim and prizes at the Venice and Toronto Festivals, as well as plenty of Oscar buzz. And all of that praise is absolutely spot on, because it is a film that beautifully combines the dazzle and flair of 1950s musicals that you watch with a smile on your face, with the moving intimate drama of a relationship that cannot work in which its central couple, an aspiring jazz pianist and an wannabe actress fall in love and then fall apart.

Director Damien Chazelle’s film is a constant conversation between past and future, where styles, themes and visual effects don’t just merge seamlessly but violently collide together to create a vibrant and engaging spectacle of a film that is at the same time full of heart; in short a love letter to a different kind of LA. As Chazelle explained during the Q&A which accompanied the UK Premiere of this film, he actively wanted to showcase less shiny areas of LA, which burst onto the screen immediately with an opening song that takes place in a huge motorway traffic jam as shiny-faced hopefuls queue not just to get into town but for their shot at fame. It takes a few minutes to adjust to the contrasting hyper-real style and mundane locations but it’s soon utterly absorbing.

But it is a film of two halves, the first the pure Hollywood romance of dreams and aspiration, and the second half the melancholy decline of love as careers takes precedence. Having encountered each other briefly on the motorway, we initially follow Mia’s story (Emma Stone), working in a coffee shop on a Studio lot serving the famous people she hopes to become, while running off to auditions, or attending parties with her 3 female flatmates. Everything in her world is full of hope, and in homage to the classic musicals, it is a Technicolor dream of jewel colours and blurred parties. Suddenly a piano refrain cuts through this extraneous noise and everything slows as she hears Sebastian playing in a restaurant.

Meanwhile Sebastian’s world is somewhere much darker, a rundown flat, jobs he hates and dreams to open his own pure jazz club that he cannot fulfill. A surly young man in the model of James Dean – a Rebel Without a Cause is one of the films repeatedly referenced – he is disconnected from the world and having encountered the more enthusiastic Mia a few times, he’s sure they wouldn’t fit together. But in one of the film’s more enchanting scenes, one magical night after a party they tap dance their way into each other’s hearts as they contemplate the sunset over LA.

A series of fairy-tale dates follow including a trip to the Griffith Observatory where they find themselves on cloud nine, dreamily dancing among the stars. One of the joys of Chazelle’s work here is how seamlessly these set-piece moments are integrated into the main story, and unlike the 50s musical, characters don’t just burst randomly into song, these sequences either explain the emotions of the protagonists or represent the fantasy world of their relationship.

But that’s only half the story and while Sebastian and Mia may be perfect for one another, they both have dreams that begin to drive a wedge between them. Again Chazelle manages the tone change perfectly and it is in this section that as an audience you begin to realise quite how much you’ve invested in these characters, and watching them moving in different directions becomes quite affecting. By the end of the film as you discover what happens to them and their dreams of ‘making-it’, the whole thing you realise is both an elegy to the people they were, and, in a magnificent alternative reality sequence – right out of the fantasy moment in Singing in the Rain and others – to the people they didn’t become.

These are first rate performances from Stone and Gosling, who have probably never been better, and have a particular fizz on screen. Stone’s Mia in some ways is her usual loveable slightly goofy heroine, but here she adds a considerable understanding of the old Hollywood style. In particular there are two key places where she uses a single look to convey a great deal of information; first when she hears Sebastian’s tune in the restaurant, Stone shows not just the weariness of her current life and appreciation of this new music, but also you see her enchantment with him. This is beautifully mirrored later in the film when she’s in the crowd at Sebastian’s concert, hearing his new band for the first time, and realising he has sold-out, her face falls as she tries to contain her disappointment both for him and herself, which signals the shift in their relationship.

Gosling too is excellent as the perhaps less idealistic Sebastian, who, in his relationship with Mia, finds both encouragement to pursue his own dreams and a pressure to reroute them to be the man she deserves. One of the more engaging aspects of the film is seeing the compromises he is forced to make to achieve a form of stardom far from who he wanted to be, and what this has to say about the Hollywood machine. It questions what the price of fame is worth, and for Sebastian it may cost him both his integrity and his relationship. Yet, it is clear how much he loves Mia and while his choices may stifle him and take him away, he makes them for her which means their pain is all the more poignant for the audience.

Chazelle’s film is an extraordinary clash of past and future explored in several ways throughout the film. Not just the merging of 50s musical styles and imagination with grittier visuals from modern LA where beautiful old cinemas and clubs are left to rot, but of the purity of Sebastian’s love of jazz ‘infected’ by new styles of music, and how the personal past and future of the characters plays out. I referred to it earlier as a violent collision of styles and Chazelle keeps control of these elements very nicely often allowing a fairly hum drum moment to erupt into a beautiful fantasy sequence, or conversely punctuating too much dreaminess with intrusive blasts of car horns or fire alarms, forcing reality to come between Mia and Sebastian once more.

Linus Sandgren’s cinematography gloriously emphasises this clash of styles and he’s given each of the leading characters their own visual tone – a simpler, washed out look for Sebastian, to emphasise the life he’s living in his small and plain apartment, while Mia gets vibrant jewel colours and plenty of soft Hollywood glow around the leading lady. Some of the best work is of course in the stunning musical sequences, whether imagining the life they could have had or an emotional Sebastian walking along the pier at sunset still forming that tune that would become his signature, Sandgren has painted incredible pictures that will make you smile.

La La Land is then a film about fate and destiny, bringing people together for a time and then understanding that love is not always enough; they may only be able to really fulfil their dreams apart. We learn later in the film, that destiny would always bring the two of them to certain places at certain times, but the sadness lies in what happened in between. Justin Hurwitz’s music manages to be a whole extra character adding just the right balance of romance and melancholy while being a celebration of the soundstage musical. Sublime, moving, delightful, exquisite and joyous, if la la land is a fantasy place for dreamers and fools, then in Chazelle’s magical film it is a place you long to be.

La La Land was premiered at the BFI London Film Festival on 7 October after screenings at Venice and Toronto. It will be released in the US on 16 December and in UK on 13 January 2017. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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