La La Land

La La Land

One of the Most Revered Films of Last Year,

La La Land is Easily the Best New Movie Musical in Forever


Magic is from people.” So said Donald Glover at the Golden Globes last week after winning Best Actor in a TV Series – Musical or Comedy for Atlanta. That same evening, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land broke the record for the most Golden Globes won by a motion picture in a single night. In a neat bit of synergy, it’s a film that perfectly epitomises Glover’s sentiment: that magic is real, so long as we have those people to produce the movies and music that can make it so.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, wondering how ugly people spend their time. (Summit Entertainment)

As an original live-action musical (which is quite a rarity these days), La La Land sets out to do a handful of things and pulls off each with aplomb. First of all, it tells a love story relevant to today’s audiences. Yes, it does indeed draw upon musicals of the past and many tropes from the Golden Age of Cinema to do so; however, that doesn’t mean it skirts the realities of real-life coupling and the pursuit of happiness that Hollywood has become much better at portraying in the last half-century.

The burgeoning love between jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) is what sparks much of the plot, but it also plays second fiddle to the passions that drive the characters. Sebastian, a jazz traditionalist who laments the slow death of what he considers the world’s foremost artform, wants to open his own club where he can play whatever music he wants to whoever will listen. Mia, a chipper barista on a studio lot who is gradually becoming more despondent about her lack of success, wants to write and star in her own one-woman play. Their chance encounters inform much of La La Land‘s action and many spectacular setpieces, but it never negates the fact that these are two distinct people with dreams that may not align with their being together. In that sense, it’s a love story perfect for millennials, a generation less concerned with letting someone else know them than truly realising who they are themselves.

Seriously, if you can find two more attractive people then I’ll use them for the next picture. (Summit Entertainment)

La La Land is also probably the most sensorially exciting new film to come along since Mad Max: Fury Road, albeit for totally different reasons. Where the latter employs motor-fuelled smash cuts and woodchipper sound design to simulate the world’s most terrifying car chase, the former makes use of magnificent long takes and such pristine, generous audio that you can almost hear the CinemaScope. What’s more – in a similar vein to Chazelle’s thrilling Whiplash – La La Land‘s central action revolves around the complementary relationship between what we see and what we hear, allowing each sense to inform and guide the other intrinsically.

For example, during the interval of “Someone in the Crowd”, lilting, slowly quickening wind instruments can be heard piping solemnly until they’re joined by an urgent bass line and percussion, leading to the bombastic final chorus. Meanwhile, Mia meanders through a chaotic house party which is framed ingeniously to suit the music: instead of the typical tableau of frozen extras, half of the party guests stand stock-still while the other half continue to move and dance, ever-so-slowly, around the statued others. This physical juxtaposition of motion surrounded by languidity perfectly mirrors what’s happening with the score, instilling a blissful, almost transcendent tone, as if every element of the film has cohered around this moment in a fit of exquisite beauty.

No? Ok, then, here’s a-fucking-nother one. I mean, goddamn, though. (Summit Entertainment)

Perhaps La La Land‘s greatest strength, above all, is knowing when best to harness the context of the musical genre to its fullest potential. On a purely narrative level, Sebastian’s jazz ambitions and actual musical performances ground the film’s use of songs perhaps half the time; as a result, these scenes pile onto the plot and real-life stakes of La La Land beyond just providing a musical number. In contrast to this, there’s no suggestion that Sebastian and Mia’s tap dancing routine during “A Lovely Night” or floating amongst the stars at the planetarium take place in anything resembling the real world.

That said, the film doesn’t then discredit these moments as being unreal, without meaning or the result of some sort of collective hallucination. In the grand tradition of movie musicals, the most spectacular things that happen in La La Land occur in that nebulous zone where the prosaic meets the poetic, where the vibrations in the air collide spontaneously to make a pretty tune you can’t help but hum along to. Just because so much of the story so clearly belongs in reality, doesn’t preclude the rest of the film from reaching for the stars and taking us along with it.

The stars… geddit? (Summit Entertainment)

None of this is even to mention the predictably superb performances by Gosling and Stone, the outstanding original songs or how funny the film can be on so many levels, from its back-and-forth repartee to some fantastic moments of slapstick. All told, though, the best reason to get along to see La La Land while it’s still showing at cinemas is also the most obvious: to see what magic people are still capable of, and to take some for yourself.

6 Replies to “La La Land”

  1. My god, Tom, this is so eloquently put that I felt giddy reading it and I haven’t even seen the film yet. Please write more.

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