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A love letter to Los Angeles, the musicals of the 1940s, and jazz, La La Land follows Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a tight-lipped jazz traditionalist. Director Damien Chazelle hasn’t pushed the boat out in terms of the story he’s telling: La La Land is essentially the same story as Whiplash. Both follow a young, ambitious creative trying to achieve their dreams through hardship. However, through style and skill, Chazelle has crafted a film that is in equal measure magical and tragic.
Musical numbers and dance sequences are captured in long takes, in essence focusing on the movement of the body through use of camera. The placement of these numbers at moments of emotional and narrative significance means that, as well as being aesthetic exercises, they are engaging devices to move the plot forward. As Mia and Sebastian begin to fall in love, a narrative element captured through dance, the pair are initially resistant to synchronising but then eventually fall wonderfully into step with each other. The ease with which these narratives ques are carried through the dancing are a credit to the work of choreographer Mandy Moore. Chazelle’s treatment of song and dance as elements of the narrative itself rather than additions on top of it mean the transitions into such theatrics are seamless – a process helped hugely by the exquisite scoring of Justin Hurwitz.
As well as revelling in the flourishes of cinema’s past, there’s also a self-awareness to the story: phone calls interrupt romantic climaxes, and there are dance routines that transition between car journeys. This adds great humour to the film’s repeated homage and feels refreshingly modern. It’s the story of two young people trying to follow their dreams, and the hardships and sacrifices that come with that journey, which gives La La Land its backbone. The pursuit and achievement of potential are how one reaches personal fulfilment while romantic love is something that can sometimes hinder that process. The film focuses on a love story but that love story doesn’t define the lives of the characters involved. It’s this focus that resists the somewhat trite conventions of the era evoked that makes La La Land feel like a story of our time. It will equally melt and break your heart.
Despite the obvious opulence and grandeur, Chazelle reigns in scenes of emotional intensity with a directorial economy that is spellbinding. A pivotal argument between Sebastian and Mia is eventually reduced to a pair of single shots which move back and forth between the pair. Gosling and particularly Stone illustrate their pedigree in such scenes, while Chazelle weaves a dynamic contrast between the louder theatrical sequences and the scenes with quiet, grounded dialogue.
Gosling and Stone are charming, likeable, and everything else you’d expect from such darlings of Hollywood. While neither are professionally trained to dance or sing their efforts are entirely admirable and criticism of such is nothing more than pedantry. Any stumbling or missteps, of which there are a noticeable few, add more charm than anything else. Both are excellent leads with Stone really stealing the show exhibiting brilliant comedic sensibility and incredible emotional subtlety.
Never saccharine or shallow while avoiding cynicism and pastiche, La La Land is the perfect nostalgia trip that captures the heightened cinematic romance of 1940s musicals, while updating the antiquated values associated with it. Beautifully fantastical while at times bracingly honest, it’s a film of technical brilliance, gripping performances, ecstatic scoring, and unrivalled cinematic vision.
La La Land is in cinemas now. View the trailer below.