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.

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