It’s a story you’ve heard before: rookie director makes a film that garners attention, perhaps some nominations, perhaps even a win or two. Their first film after the breakaway is generally one of two things: a big budget genre piece (Fant4stic, Jurassic World), or carte blanche. Whatever the hell they want. La La Land is writer/director Damian Chazelle’s (Whiplash) example of the latter: a semi-musical set in the modern era, designed to resemble the lost golden age of Hollywood. With names attached, because you can afford names when you’re a star.
Ingenue-in-waiting Mia Dolan (Emma Stone, Aloha) and frustrated jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys) sort of meet one late December day. La La Land follows their separate and intertwined fortunes over a year as they randomly encounter each other and eventually become an item.
La La Land begins with a promise, but it’s never clear if it ever intended to keep it: we are immediately greeted by a production number set on a highway that extends out to the horizon. It both sets a tone and has the distinction of having nothing to do with the rest of the movie whatsoever, but it’s allowed. Soon thereafter, we get another production number wherein Stone’s roommates (Callie Hernandez, Blair Witch; Jessica Rothe, TV’s Mary + Jane; Sonoya Mizuno, Ex Machina) persuade her to go to a party. It’s a big song and dance and it pertains to both the movie and the character.
Then La La Land abruptly forgets that it’s a musical. The characters sing, but it’s not the same. A spell has been broken, because we’ve been asked to come to Earth, where Mia and Sebastian are supposed to be real, rather than an elaborate ruse.
Stone and Gosling, in their third film together, have developed an easy rapport that can support both lightness and drama in a way that any director would be thankful for; he just has to make them look beautiful. These characters are flawed in ways that make them believable; their selfishness and insularity flesh them out without rendering them unlikeable, and it becomes clear that we do not have to accept their opinions as our own.
Chazelle’s script, written around the songs (by Justin Hurwitz with lyrics by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul) that persist throughout, is provocative and actually demands its audience to question the outcomes that they have witnessed, almost challenging them to reject the nostalgia and self-mythologising that has come immediately before. That is the strength of La La Land: it has the appearance of one thing and the delivery of another. Dressed in the finery of a classic golden age film, but with a distinctly modern slant, it is beautifully shot and conceived. Chazelle has a clear eye for what he’s doing but it seems he’s consistently unwilling to telegraph the hand he’s playing, allowing for thematic and stylistic surprises that mask a relatively conventional story.
La La Land is a fascinating movie that flips its weaknesses into strengths: while it could have stood to have more musical set pieces, what we end up with is a beautifully shot, well-acted character study populated by flawed but believable people. Chazelle combines familiarity with wildly creative execution, proving that style is substance: La La Land is a grand piece of cinema and an oddity — and one that justifies a career on the rise.
La La Land opens in Australian cinemas on December 26, 2016.
Directed by: Damien Chazelle.
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt and J.K. Simmons.