It’s nice to write about a film when the word “stars” feels more like a way of articulating its aspirations (i.e. “shooting for the…”) than a mere descriptor of famous people. In the case of the splashy, pop arty, under-the-moonlight, handsomely retrograde musical La La Land, that word also occupies the title and verse of a song Ryan Gosling croons in several scenes – called City of Stars.
“Is this the start of something won-deerrr-ful,” he sings in mellow key, a line so lovely and hopeful it made the promotional materials. But the next one is “Or one more dream that I cannot make true?” That kind of dichotomy, countering wishy-washy optimism with a bit of a reality check, goes some way in communicating the film’s overarching tone, which is surprisingly grounded for a production featuring lovers literally dancing on air.
You wouldn’t think that from its chipper opening sequence with drivers alighting from their cars and bursting into song – a scene that froze my face into a big goofy grin – writer/director Damien Chazelle (following 2014’s excellent Whiplash) would get so…melancholic.
In other words, if such a thing as a standard-issue happy-go-lucky Hollywood musical still exists, this isn’t it. La La Land‘s marketing materials naturally focus on the lovey-dovey stuff, but the film’s emotional spectrum is much broader and more nuanced – unafraid to offset peachy romance with a more sobering picture of love, a la Blue Valentine or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In that sense it’s like Pixar’s Inside Out: the movie you buy a ticket to isn’t necessarily the same one that plays on screen.
That opening number comprises a single(ish) take based in a traffic jam: Jean-Luc Godard by way of Grease. Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) square off on a jam-packed Los Angeles freeway; he honks at her and she gives him the finger as he passes.
The director sashays into potted narratives of the pair’s respective lives. Both are wide-eyed and ambitious, singing from the sheet of want-something-more-out-of-life. The barista who dreams of a career in the spotlight (serving coffee in a shop on the Warner Bros. lot to pay the bills) and the daydreaming muso who wants to open up his own club, to single-handed revive what he perceives to be an ailing art form.
There’s some to-and-fro and hostile body language before they get together, then emotional depth and conflict as their fortunes see-saw. Bravura set pieces and hummable song and dance numbers abound as Chazelle mixes things up in style and palette. The opening ditty almost feels like it’s taking place indoors, with its narrow space and concentrated mid-shot, while the planetarium-set airborne prance across a starry sky feels boundless.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play sort-of boy/girl next door types, and sort of not: a common Joe and Jane who may be destined for greater things. They make an appealing pair, but, like their dancing, they are supposed to endear rather than dazzle.
A sense of the past is never far from the film’s focus, from direct references (posters, dialogue name-checking etc) to character information (i.e. Sebastian’s love of old music) and texturising (cinematographer Linus Sandgren shot it with an old school CinemaScope lens). Chazelle probably owes something to Michael Hazanavicius’ 2011 film The Artist, also set in Hollywood, which similarly wrapped a homage to a previously popular art form (silent cinema) in contemporary packaging.
A scene in La La Land where the characters revisit events previously captured in the film, imagining them playing out in a different way, adds an unreliable narrator-esque element to the fantasy of the musical numbers. Perhaps the reality-defying nature of these moments could actually be illustration of a faulty, or rose-filtered, memory.
For the post-Glee crowd, that is a particularly interesting fantasia to chew over, though I suspect the film’s old timey vibes and swooning street lamp-lit look will command the lion’s share of attention. It certainly looks very nice with Chazelle often pausing to relish the energising beauty of a single, simple, carefully framed image.