11 January 2017

La La Land review

Despite having been looking forward to La La Land, the latest film from Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle, for some time now, the first two musical numbers had me more than a little worried that I wasn't going to enjoy it. The opening to the movie, a colourful, well-choreographed sequence on a gridlocked highway, felt entirely incidental even while it was happening; the follow-up to that, which sees Emma Stone's character Mia and her friends getting ready for and then attending a Hollywood party, was far too reminiscent of something like Hairspray or Grease for my tastes. It wasn't until the third number, a truly old-school song and dance titled "A Lovely Night", that La La Land really clicked with me - at which point I was completely hooked by a film every bit as good as you've probably already heard.

La La Land is a throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a romantic musical that disproves the empty-headed sentiment of "they don't make them like they used to" with ease thanks not just to the songs, dances, structure and tone that makes La La Land completely unique in modern cinema, but also the sheer sense of craft on display throughout. There isn't an aspect of La La Land that isn't highly polished, from Justin Hurwitz's wonderful score to the dance choreography to the vivid cinematography, all of which help La La Land pop from the screen in a way few films manage to do even once, never mind multiple times.

Take, for example, the aforementioned "A Lovely Night" number that handily shows off the talents of lead actors Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling thanks to its intricate, precise choreography and wonderful melody, or the grand finale, a sweeping dance sequence through a number of visually stunning locations that concludes the film in an emotional, thematically resonant way. La La Land is pure cinema, beautiful and meaningful and engaging in all the ways that so many films aren't, and it's that feeling of a vision fulfilled, of true artistry that La La Land leaves you with.

But La La Land's strengths aren't only down to the way that it manages to recapture the spirit and feeling of a bygone era of film, or the stellar production values throughout - it's also a genuinely great movie in it's own right. The romance between leads Mia Dolan and Sebastian Wilder (played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling respectively) is wholly believable thanks to the chemistry between the two of them, and the story being told is interesting thanks not just to how easy it is to become invested in their relationship, but also thanks to Chazelle's continued exploration of themes of ambition and sacrifice from Whiplash.

It also continues to prove just how talented both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are, who play leads Sebastian Wilder and Mia Dolan respectively. Stone is as great here as she ever is, imbuing her character with that odd sense of relatability that she's known for, and I was surprised by how good a singer/dancer she was - but it's Gosling I was particularly impressed by. I've talked about his natural ability when it comes to physical comedy before - something we saw a lot of in last year's The Nice Guys - but that's utilised better than ever here, demonstrating that he would have made for an excellent silent-movie era star thanks to how expressive and deliberate his movements are.

None of this is to say that La La Land is without its flaws - I've already mentioned that the first two musical numbers left me cold, and a few pacing issues mean that it could have been an even stronger movie if it were a tad shorter - it's just that they don't matter in the long run thanks to how high the highs are, and how often they come along. If Whiplash proved Damien Chazelle to be a promising director, then La La Land proves him to be one of the most exciting talents in the business right now - and I can't wait to see what he's got in store for us next.

5 stars

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