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.