Movie awards season is on the horizon, and in timely fashion some of the most extravagant cinema is being brought to the big screen. La La Land takes this extravagance to another level however, formulating what is in essence a love letter to Hollywood and the musical song and dance movies of the 1930s and 40s. La La Land is not the typical homage to classic cinema that Hollywood is used to making. It is in fact an entirely new creation altogether. There is song, there is dance and there is plot, all melded into an extremely contemporary take that symbolises modern society to perfection. At times the film even seems to have a 1980's sensibility that has long been missing from contemporary cinema. It warms the heart, and is guaranteed to make you smile, while at the same time feeling compelled to take you on an emotional roller coaster of despair and missed opportunity.
The film follows the story of two star crossed lovers as they strive to achieve their dreams in Hollywood. Mia is an aspiring actress who works in a studio backlot coffee shop in order to make ends meet. Sebastian on the other hand is a pianist and jazz aficionado who dreams of opening a bar dedicated to the music of a bygone era. Like Mia, his aspirations have also fell short, reluctantly spending his time playing show tunes and Christmas carols at various establishments to pay the rent.
As you would expect, the two meet and they absolutely hate each other. This transforms into the standard "cute chance meeting" that forms the core of most romantic Hollywood movies, as they discover specific qualities in each other that intrigue them. They correspondingly share their deepest desires and dreams, becoming infatuated with each other in the process. From here the story progresses as the pair struggle with their individual dreams while they simultaneously negotiate the obstacles that challenge their unique relationship.
The story works well compared to the maze of other romantic movies that have recently been released, however the real strength of the film lies with the choreography, cinematography and amazing stage set pieces. The opening sequence is spectacular, taking the tracking "one shot" that has been synonymous with so many award winning movies of the past few years to a whole other level. The scene is highly complicated and extremely well executed, encompassing the broadest of stages. Credit has to go to cinematographer Linus Sandgren and writer/director Damien Chazelle for delivering something so unique.
The wonderful Emma Stone is fabulous in the role of Mia, as she embodies an actress right on the verge of meeting her wits end. The audience will quickly gather that she has been stuck in the tumultuous processes of auditioning hell for some time. While remaining her quirky self, she simultaneously conveys a plethora of endearing qualities as she juggles her self doubt and unlimited potential. Musically and vocally Emma Stone is amazingly melodious. At the same time her chemistry with her counterpart is something to be admired. In short, she is a perfect casting and any issues with her character are entirely related to the script.
Ryan Gosling on the other hand, while having many stand out scenes, lacks consistency with his portrayal of Sebastian. He is extremely likeable and entertaining, however during certain scenes he seems to lack the level of suitability required for the role. His nonchalant nature, while appropriate for the character, is also transferred across to his musical performance. His vocals while being raw, lack the musical prowess that audiences would expect from a film that requires so many rhythmic set pieces. This may be intentional, but it strangely doesn't serve the story.
Audiences would also be led to believe that Sebastian is some kind of roguish amalgamation between James Dean and Dean Martin. Unfortunately he is neither. His dancing however is well executed, organic and highly entertaining. Although it pales in comparison to the leaders of the form, such as the likes of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire who set the standard so many years ago. These comparisons may be unfair, but they were going to be inevitable, especially considering La La Land's very specific and strategic marketing campaign. It is undeniable that Gosling's performance will leave audiences with the impression that he was cast purely based on his history and perceived chemistry with Emma Stone. Not to take anything away from Gosling as an actor, who for the most part is fantastic. However, on this occasion his previous roles in films such as The Nice Guys and The Big Short seem to suit his skill set much more.
Aside from these minor casting gripes, the film is an absolute visual spectacular. Whether it's the larger than life choreographed set pieces, or the intimate and colourful moments shared between Mia and Sebastian, the movie is guaranteed to leave audiences with one hell of a surreal experience. The film's first act is undeniably its greatest achievement, creating an absolutely delightful viewing experience that is profoundly captivating. The final act is also incredibly strong, although hints of poor story choices do start to creep in towards the finale. In addition to this, the seemingly long middle lacks narrative drive. This is rectified somewhat by the sprinkling of musical sequences, however the scenes are not enough to hide the issues from being noticeable.
La La Land's finale is also a perplexing conundrum that may polarise some audiences. This is a direct result of the questionable choices that are made by Mia and Sebastian towards the conclusion of their character arc. The ending attempts to be edgy and unexpected, but it perhaps is too smart for its own good. It's also no coincidence that there are continuous references throughout the film to classic movies such as Casablanca, in a seeming attempt to foreshadow the events to come. Mia's decisions are understandable from a certain point of view, however her choices don't seem to reflect the persona the story has gone out of its way to create for her. Sebastian on the other hand seems to take the moral high ground, much in the mold of Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine in Casablanca. On this particular occasion the choice doesn't seem to feel right, especially since the stakes in La La Land are not quite as high. This devotion to realism is particularly strange, especially considering the surreal landscape the film goes out of its way to create. The movie will also leave audiences with the take home message that life doesn't always work out, and even when you get what you desire there is always a significant price to pay.
The film does however eloquently mask this dilemma with a spectacular creative montage that seems to rectify many of these issues. The concept is extremely well executed and is highly original, especially in the current landscape of film making. Yet rather than making the bold decision to end the story there and let audiences make up their own mind, the film instead opts to return to its monotonous realism and bitter sweet end. It is a frustrating and pessimistic turn of events to say the least. From a character analysis and story perspective however, the two main protagonists get exactly what they need to address their psychological eccentricities. In truth, they also fulfill their desires and initial intentions to spectacular effect. However, through the course of the story both their desires are altered due to a number of circumstances. These new desires are subsequently not addressed in an adequate fashion. While other genres may be able to get away with this, La La Land cannot and at the same time misses a golden opportunity, primarily due to how significant the love story element is within the story.
La La Land's many talking points are destined to make the film inherently re-watchable. Aside from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling's fabulous chemistry, the haunting musical soundtrack and the glamorized Los Angeles landscape are the absolute stars. The surreal and fantastical visual sequences are also set to spontaneously surprise many audiences, as the elements all come together in mesmerizing unison. This is particularly displayed with the planetarium sequence at Griffith Observatory. To put it lightly, it is a scene that will be remembered for some time.
In summary, La La Land is fresh, bright and effervescent, exuding a level of creativity that has long been absent from Hollywood and the movie industry in recent years. The film is undeniably going to be one of the favourites this awards season, and it is for very good reason. Damien Chazelle's latest film is an absolute visual spectacle that is colourful and heartwarming, conjuring a level of joy that is fantastic to be a part of. There are many stand out scenes that are going to be inherently memorable, while the captivating story will remain on audience's minds for quite a while. In short, La La Land is one of the must watch movies this awards season, and is undeniably one of the best movies of the year. It is also guaranteed to win best musical/comedy at the Golden Globes, and is destined to have a fabulous showing at the Oscars. Make sure you go and see it while it's at the cinema.