Film review: La La Land

by James Robins / 10 January, 2017

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land:  a refined reverence for things past.

Disclosure: I hate musicals. I cannot go near one without shivering in embarrassment for all involved. Why? Perhaps it was the vividly traumatic experience of being subjected to Cats at a young age. Perhaps it’s the inescapable feeling that singing is a waste of good dialogue. Then again, perhaps it’s the idea that all musicals are inherently camp and should therefore never be taken seriously by anyone, at any time.

How, then, to deal with La La Land, the all-swaying and all-crooning latest from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle, which opens with a ridiculous primary-coloured ensemble number during a traffic jam on a Los Angeles overpass? There’s acrobatics and swinging skirts and a percussion band in the back of a moving truck – a maelstrom of flailing and faked jubilance.

The fanfare continues breakneck into the next few scenes: the camera even follows one dancer into a swimming pool and carries on filming semi-submerged. I’m already fearing the dentist’s bill when I’ve finished grinding my teeth to powder over the coming two hours.

Thankfully, things ease up, so that we can be properly introduced to Mia (Emma Stone, delightfully effervescent), an aspiring actress doing the regular barista rounds, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, handsome and demure), a jazz pianist forced to play tired Christmas carols in half-empty restaurants. In this brief pause, it becomes apparent that the writing is smart and snappy. Why can’t it always be like this?

Though this turn out to be an adoring romance, Mia and Sebastian are clearly not bound by some starry alignment. Their first meeting involves an exchange of honked horns and single-finger gestures; their second a terse brush-past. By the time they get talking properly, it all looks doomed.

And then they wander up into the Hollywood Hills and, with the glistening velvet of LA spread out behind them, begin to shimmy. It’s a modest jaunt, nothing more than an evening frolic, and yet it happens with such ease and seduction that, for a moment, I didn’t clench in terror.

Partly this is because the entire five minutes of this louche tap dance is shot in a single take, head-to-toe, the way Ginger Rogers (backwards in heels) and Fred Astaire (in spats and morning coat) used to do it. There can be no mistakes, no fluffed steps, no lapse in expression. Maybe I have to admit, grudgingly, that there’s a degree of technical virtuosity to all this.

After the seduction is complete, there’s barely any choreographed mayhem (save for a high-wire flight of fancy at the Griffith Observatory). Instead, the routines are not much more than ditties, evocations of a mood and texture. The film’s most tender moments have Mia and Sebastian smiling cheek-to-cheek at a piano, riffing, alone in their contentedness.

Because Chazelle is indebted to tradition, we must follow a classic narrative arc. Mia and Sebastian fight and, briefly, go their separate ways. Their argument is an argument about La La Land’s own raison d’être: what’s the point of nostalgia in art if there’s no innovation, no throwing out of old clichés? What’s the point in purity if there’s no progress? We can live as if in a golden age, but why can’t that golden age be here and now?

In reply, Chazelle squares the circle and has it both ways. La La Land is both a love letter to Top Hat and its glossy cousins, and an update of those wistful sensations now confined to archived celluloid. The film reanimates that old-fashioned charm for our own cynical era. Chazelle’s faith in the uplift of cinema is infectious. He hasn’t proved, to me at least, that musicals are in any sense useful. Rather, he proves that you can synthesise and refine reverence for things past, and with a little nerve, magically transform them into something fresh and spectacular. 

IN CINEMAS NOW

This article was first published in the January 17, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

Latest

China could be using Taiwan as a testing ground for disinformation campaigns
102550 2019-02-20 00:00:00Z World

China could be using Taiwan as a testing ground fo…

by Gavin Ellis

A Taiwanese diplomat’s death in Japan has become a symbol of the consequences and dangers of disinformation.

Read more
The best way to beat food cravings? Fill up on the objects of your desire
102087 2019-02-20 00:00:00Z Nutrition

The best way to beat food cravings? Fill up on the…

by Jennifer Bowden

Research has shown that dieters’ attempts to resist eating certain foods appear to lead to cravings for those foods.

Read more
Deepfake: How disinformation fools our brains and damages democracy
102545 2019-02-20 00:00:00Z Tech

Deepfake: How disinformation fools our brains and…

by Gavin Ellis

Message manipulation using bots, algorithms and, now, AI software is making it harder to know what’s real – and threatening democracy itself.

Read more
Move to introduce digital tax for foreign companies profiting online
102519 2019-02-19 09:23:12Z Economy

Move to introduce digital tax for foreign companie…

by RNZ

New Zealand is lining up to introduce a new tax on multinational companies that make money out of online goods and services in this country.

Read more
National's high-risk gamble on marijuana and euthanasia
102484 2019-02-19 00:00:00Z Politics

National's high-risk gamble on marijuana and eutha…

by Graham Adams

Having polarising MPs like Paula Bennett and Maggie Barry leading the opposition to popular reforms could be kryptonite to the National Party.

Read more
Reflections on my encounter with the charming Dan Mallory
102482 2019-02-19 00:00:00Z Profiles

Reflections on my encounter with the charming Dan…

by Michele Hewitson

He penned a bestselling thriller, but as Michele Hewitson discovered, author Dan Mallory also proved himself to be a charmingly adept bullshit artist.

Read more
Sounds of summer: Notable Kiwis name their favourite summer songs
102500 2019-02-19 00:00:00Z Music

Sounds of summer: Notable Kiwis name their favouri…

by Phil Gifford

How music can transport you back to your most memorable summer.

Read more
Inside the close-knit community that lives along the Cromwell-Tarras Rd
102505 2019-02-19 00:00:00Z Travel

Inside the close-knit community that lives along t…

by Mike White

Mike White heads up the Cromwell-Tarras road to merino and wine country.

Read more