Film Review: Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (USA, 2016) achieves cinematic and musical perfection

La La Land is the new film from offensively talented director Damien Chazelle, who last impressed with the Oscar winning film Whiplash, a story (in part) about the search for musical perfection in a young Jazz drummer. In La La Land, we remain in a musical world, as Chazelle takes us back to the classic Hollywood musical – Singin’ in the Rain being one of the most on-the-nose examples thematically and artistically – against the landscape of jazz music (a running theme in all of Chazelle’s films) and a love story across the seasons.

The film stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as Mia and Sebastian, who meet while their professional lives are at a crossroads. One is a struggling jazz musician, having to play a keytar in a cover band to pay the bills; the other a struggling actress, serving coffee on a Hollywood backlot (in what may or may not have also been the set for Luke’s Diner in Gilmore Girls) while she attends audition after audition. We are taken through a year in the life of these two strangers – how they meet, how they fall for each other, and how they affect each others lives across four seasons. And, in classic Hollywood tradition, some of this is done to song – with a mix of understated duets, big budget numbers, one of the most impressive closing montages I’ve ever seen and even an in-concert spectacular thrown in for good measure.

Though plenty of movie magic is used along the way, there is a distinct theatrical approach to the film, from its lighting – a spotlight to highlight a character’s gaze – to Linus Sandgren‘s cinematography, which often works around a literal stage the performers are utilising. But even when it’s at its most cinematic – such as when the pair are flying in the Griffith Park observatory in a sequence inspired by Rebel Without a Cause – Mandy Moore’s choreography (not to be confused with THE Mandy Moore) and lighting (there are some stunning silhouettes in there) feel like they would comfortably sit in a Broadway musical. This creates an intimacy between us and the characters that is at times joyous and at other times unnerving, as its hard not to feel like you’re in the middle of the pair when things hit their lowest points. But ultimately its this intimacy, set against the backdrop of a city that offers anything but, that makes the film such a success.

Meanwhile, the approach in the editing room often brings back memories of a fast-paced Guy Ritchie movie, whose attention to his soundtrack made a film like Snatch something of an extended music video in its own right. Tom Cross, who won the Oscar for his work on Whiplash, returns to the editors chair here and again impresses, showing his strong sense of timing – even when he’s not making visible edits at all, such as during one of the most impressive opening numbers you’re ever likely to see. I was only able to spot one of the cuts in the sequence, which is supposedly three shots expertly blended together a-la Birdman to look like a single shot – and even then it only feels like conjecture. Cross’ balance between these big numbers, sans obvious cuts, and the fast paced exchanges you might find elsewhere is so impressive you may have to call the man a genius.

Though the film lags ever so slightly in the third season, it’s hard to otherwise fault the pacing or the film as a whole. Stone and Gosling shine in their roles, and this is very much their film. But the team of incredible dancers, actors and musicians that play out the film behind them are not to be ignored. Of particular mention, John Legend plays the frontman effortlessly and J.K. Simmons seems to feel right at home with Chazelle behind the lens. Though his role is small, it’s wholly memorable. But then again, Simmons is good at doing this wherever he pops up.

And what of the music? Justin Hurwitz‘s score is spectacular when it’s needs to be, and stripped right back when it doesn’t. As he showed in Whiplash, Hurwitz is already a master of his craft, and explores the tradition of musical repetition well, with “City of Stars” running throughout the film, serving as its most memorable number. You likely already know it for its placement in the film’s wonderful trailer. Songwriting duo Pasek and Paul clearly worked their magic on the songs lyrics, too, bringing their theatrical experience to the fold in a way that made everything gel together nicely. It’s also important to note that they never overdo it – there are big chunks of this movie that have no singing at all. They save them for the right moments, just as all the classic musicals did (give me Singin’ over Les Mis any day…)

In an age where cinema has become all about the franchise and the super heroes and the wars in the stars, this is a much needed reminder of just how good cinema can be without the obvious bells and whistles of fantasy. It’s an overt love letter to the films that came before it, while creating something that feels fresh and almost necessary, amongst a world gone mad. And as the world keeps going mad, we need these sorts of films even more.

For Cinephiles, the film’s affection with the classic Hollywood Musical will provide a sense of nostalgia that will be hard to resist. There are the seasons of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; the colours and lampposts of Singing in the Rain; the An American in Paris and Funny Face references in the final montage; the stars of Broadway Melody of 1940… the list goes on. And for the rest, the phenomenal cast, the engaging and intimate story, the enjoyable music and the incredible production will prove it irresistible.

From the epic “single take” curtain raiser to the film’s denouement – a montage to beat all montages – La La Land is pure cinematic bliss and the film to beat this awards season.

Review Score: FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

La La Land is in cinemas nationwide on Boxing Day

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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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