La La Land – Review *****

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The expectations for Damien Chazelle’s second feature were already through the roof even before the first trailers for La La Land hit the interwebs; and when the acclaim came in from the Venice and Toronto Film Festival the bar was raised even higher. As reviews keep pouring in (no one seems to dislike this boy meets girl Hollywood musical), can we trust ourselves to the screen and savour a great film that happens to not be a sequel, prequel, remake, reboot or comic adaptation? Yes. Yes we can.

Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who works at a cafe in a studio lot, serving lattes to the stars. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist struggling to make ends meet, forced to play music he despises to be able to survive. The first time they see each other, they’re in a traffic jam – and she flips him the bird; the second time, she’s just lost her car and he’s lost a job. Despite their initial hate, they (obviously) fall in love and we follow them as they inspire each other to pursue their dreams in the City of Lights, all while dancing, tapping and singing their way throughout.

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Imagine a 1930s musical where the protagonists are kept on a healthy diet of classical films and HBO shows, have iPhones and listen to 80s music on Youtube, and there’s no such thing as an happy ending, and you may have a general idea of what La La Land is about. This brilliant homage (to musicals, to Los Angeles, to Hollywood, and to cinema & jazz as a whole) may start with a Cinemascope “gag” and the most LA musical number ever (in a continuous shot with choreography worthy of Busby Berkeley), but don’t be deceived – this is a terribly honest and bittersweet 21st century tale. It may be a story as old as time (with plenty of cinephile winks), but the ways in which writer/director Chazelle manages to make fun of romance stereotypes whilst fully delivering on them is proof of his directorial mastery. The final musical number – which has neither words nor dancing – will make Kleenex sales rocket.

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Both Stone and Gosling should be forced to make at least one film per year together. The chemistry between the pair is undeniable, and that – together with the memorable soundtrack by Justin Hurwitz – makes for a successful musical. Stone holds her ground as a woman that is not so sure about LA or even if she should pursue her dreams, increasingly frustrated as her auditions keep getting interrupted by phones, PAs and impatient casting directors. But the spotlight in this film will definitely go for Gosling, who has grown considerably as an actor in the last few years, and who gives himself body and fingers (no hand doubles were used in any of the musical numbers) to Sebastian. His crazy love for jazz and Mia, his determination and sarcasm (“I wanna be on the ropes. I’m just letting life think it has me and then before you know it – BAM. It’s a classic rope-a-dope”), his professional seriousness (even in some daring, er, “running” moments)… just give him all the awards already.

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La La Land is a cinematographic candy land, and Lindus Sandgren (who also lensed Joy and American Hustle) has a field day. Transitioning smoothly between the colours of reality to surreal stylised dance numbers, all while keeping the postmodern feel of an old movie filmed with really fancy camerawork, the film goes through almost every style possible, and still feels whole. As the fakeness of the sets and the cracks on the road are kept on screen (no escapism allowed, folks), Chazelle’s daring boldness in telling this story his own way (not even caring about going too far, like in the Observatory scene, or when all lights fade for a protagonist spotlight moment) is so refreshing you may think you are either in a sweet dream or that he last 20 years of painted-by-numbers filmography domination were a nightmare. You can still sense Whiplash in the way he films the jazz performances – the spinning camera, the top shots, the animality of playing – and then, he goes and does something like Emma Stone’s “Audition” musical number – something that in power can only compare to Anne Hathaway’s “I had a dream” in Les Miserables.

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Probably one of the best films to come out in 2017, La La Land reflects on what it means to pursue a dream against all odds (even if those odds are true love), while glorifying the City of Dreams in all its senseless “what if”-ery. There’s a Hollywood finale, but then there isn’t. After all, it’s a jazz song – every time you play it, a different story is told…

As for the view, we’ve seen better.

La La Land will be released in the UK on 13th January 2017.

Sara is originally from Coimbra, Portugal, where she studied Film Studies before moving to London to enrol in film school. Having made her first short film about her neighbour's chickens when she was 9 (a dystopian sci-fi, still her favourite genre), she is now a London-based film director and editor, and also a writer for the Portuguese Take Magazine. She is a huge fan of Lars Von Trier, Krysztof Kiéslowski, and David Lean.