We say it so often, don’t we – ‘they don’t make them like they used to!’ We could be talking about music, television, cars or even adverts and our nostalgia-tainted brains will stubbornly reject the new. It’s within cinema that this phrase most likely gets used the most and often sometimes it really feels true. 2016. A year where Michael Bay has his fifth Transformers movie currently in production, superheroes are dominating the box office and good British movies such as ‘Girl With All The Gifts’ get only two weeks in cinemas before disappearing completely. Well, it’s enough to feel disillusioned with the current state of the film industry. Then something like ‘La La Land’ comes along – something that is so joyous, pure, heartfelt and utterly extraordinary. It wears its heart, and its nostalgia, on its sleeve as it assuredly breathes new life into a bygone genre.
Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress who works at the coffee shop on the lot of a movie studio. She serves macchiatos to the stars whilst she is so desperate to be one – yet after six years of constant auditioning she cannot get a call back. Seb (Gosling) is a struggling jazz pianist who dreams of owning a jazz club that would be up there with the greats. Both are trying to make it in the city that is known for crushing dreams and breaking young hearts. They meet by chance again and again – perhaps they can offer each other the hope they both so desperately need.
A bad film in this style would be like a patchwork quilt – its influences would be visible, its different patterns distracting and the seams sewing them together would be oh-so prominent. That’s what makes ‘La La Land’ that level of incredible. The influences are there, clearly and proudly, and yet are embraced instead of imitated. They build to make layers and depth as opposed to formulating the content. Setting it in modern-day Los Angeles was the perfect decision, making it cotemporaneous and giving proceedings freshness, yet in terms of clothing and stylistics golden-age Hollywood has omnipresence interwoven into proceedings that only aids to the charm.
The set design, cinematography and direction alone deserve their own entire essays, or even their own books. There’s touches of Alfred Hitchcock in some of the framing, Douglas Sirk in terms of colour, there’s some influence of ‘Casablanca’, sprinklings of ‘A Star is Born’, dashes of ‘Singin in the Rain’ and lashings of MGM’s classic technicolour musicals. That’s only a tiny handful of the clear influences that have been lovingly embraced by writer/director Damien Chazelle. This is the kind of movie people will fall in love with and that those who love cinema will find themselves hopelessly devoted to.
The decision to set in the now, although an unfixed point in the now, gives the film a sense of timelessness that only increases the sense of wonderment. Phones and varying other pieces of technology are heard but not seen – a decision that both prevents the movie from being rivetedly set at a certain time but will also stop the film from aging quicker than it could. The temptation with media texts now is to completely integrate new technology in yet doing so only signs the death warrant of the film’s cinematic life – by not forcing twitter/Facebook/latest iPhone into the magic we are allowed to escape into this world and in the years to come not forced to cringe at past technology.
This love letter to the magic of the movies isn’t so light and frothy that it floats away. It’s weighted down by scenes of genuine disappointment and conflict that are authentically raw. Anyone who dreams has also faced defeat. It says much about the skill of both Gosling and Stone as actors that they can smoothly integrate the setbacks of ambition with such heart. Both actors have also been grievously underappreciated for their self-depreciating style of acting that may have been belied by their equal levels of astonishing attractiveness. This film should fix that. Both create characters who are believable, truly likeable, deadly serious when needed and a whole lot of fun to watch.
‘La La Land’ is the cinematic epitome of a love letter. It’s addressed to a city that adopts many yet accepts only a few. A city that induces much inspiration and aspiration yet can crush just as easily. Yes it’s as good as everyone says it is. It’ll have your heart aching with joy and yearning; its tunes will linger in your brain and hopefully weave a little bit of its magic into your life. Falling in love with it is inevitable.
Dir: Damien Chazelle
Scr: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, J.K. Simmons, John Legend
Prd: Fred Berger, Gary Gilbert, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt
DOP: Linus Sandgren
Music: Justin Hurwitz
Country: United States
Run time: 126 minutes
‘La La Land’ is in UK cinemas January 17th