Sebastian and Mia’s city is one of dreamers. It’s a world where pastel coloured sunset skies dance flirtatiously with fleeting and spiralling stars, only subdued by the glow of street lamps that guide the way for lovers below. It’s a world soundtracked by soft pianos and gorgeous, sweeping orchestration. It’s a beautifully idyllic world in which fantasists and romantics rule and it’s one that is near impossible to avoid being swept up in. Such is the world the pair come to embody in La La Land, this sparkling musical romance.
In the beginning, we’re greeted by the finest traffic jam based sing and dance routine this side of Fame – as a bunch of eager young kids fill the crammed freeway into LA with a huge, soaring dance number. As the song fades and normality is almost restored, the film begins to take shape. Played out across the four seasons, it commences in Winter and the first section introduces our protagonists. Firstly, there’s Mia – a struggling actor, working as a barista on the Warner Brothers lot, who we meet despondently thumbing through pages for an audition later that day, whilst stuck in traffic. Behind her in the same queue is Seb, a lonely, jazz obsessed and struggling musician, who has lost his last buck in a failed shady deal to open his own jazz club.
Fresh from the juggernaut that was Whiplash, director Damien Chazelle dazzles in this perfect paean to the musical and Hollywood’s golden era, once again never missing a beat. The parallels between the two films can be seen if you look hard enough. They are in Ryan Gosling’s character’s passion for his instrument of choice, the piano; they’re echoed in his drive for something true. Something raw and something real. Echoed too is JK Simmons strict, no nonsense “my class, my rules” act, as he briefly appears as the restaurant manager intent on chaining Gosling’s musical mastery to a mind-numbingly lacklustre set list of Christmas standards. Sure, the parallels can be drawn, but from the get go it is clear something altogether more magical is happening here.
That magic radiates primarily from the chemistry between the two enchanting leads, sparkling together so endearingly throughout, creating two utterly spellbinding performances. From the moment their eyes first meet over the aggressive honking of a car horn, to Emma Stone’s beguilement at Gosling’s showmanship at the piano in the restaurant on their second chance meeting and as Mia later mischievously foments Seb’s humiliation at having lowered himself to working as a bit part player in an 80’s cover band – a special kind of hell for a “serious musician.” Each time fate throws these two together, it’s clear something very special is in the accession.
Ryan Gosling’s recent successful foray into comedy has seen him develop into a fine all round performer – one whose name could well be uttered in the same breath as those he aims to ape so well here. He exudes charm throughout, bringing a quiet cynicism to this physically comedic role. Similarly, Emma Stone shines as bright as the stars that fill their city – with her intelligent turn as the struggling actor forced to turn up and churn out meaningless audition after meaningless audition filling the screen with a sort of bittersweet joy. Both are incredibly brave, vulnerable and entirely enchanting performances.
Throughout the film there are clear nods to classic musicals and movies, all of which are well placed, done with love and great affection and work beautifully. From the aforementioned Fame reference in its opening sequence, to Mia and Seb strolling past the window from which Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart looked out on to Paris in Casablanca on a vacant Warner Brothers backlot.
The film’s highlight, meanwhile, is a Singing In The Rain homage, where Gosling and Stone play off each other wonderfully as one tries, rather unconvincingly, to convince the other there’s no spark between the pair. Of course, the music becomes just as an important character as our protagonists. Mia & Sebastian’s theme song reoccurring throughout to say a thousand words neither character could speak, either heart-warming or heart-breaking, and, at times, both.
“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” Seb’s former arch-enemy and eventual employer Keith asks midway through the film. By embracing its ancestors and sprinkling them with a modern twist, La La Land proves you can do both and be just as charming, captivating and as tender as your predecessors.
Here’s to the dreamers, indeed.