I went to see La La Land tonight, the new film from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It’s been tipped to sweep the board at the Oscars, having already claimed a record number of Golden Globe awards earlier this month, and it’s not hard to see why – it’s an unashamed love letter to old Hollywood, the sort of film that the Academy loves to bestow little gold statuettes on.
More importantly though, it’s a wonderful film. If you’re not a huge fan of musicals, you may enter with a bit of trepidation, yet you can’t help but be swept along by it, from the opening, show-stopping (and traffic stopping) scene on an LA freeway. What makes La La Land so affecting is that neither Stone nor Gosling have particularly powerful singing voices: so, you’re seeing real people singing with real emotions. In a strange way, I was reminded of that classic Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode, Once More With Feeling.
The plot is a simple one – stuggling actor Mia (played by Stone) moves to Hollywood, goes through the usual run of soul-sapping auditions while working as a barista on a film studio lot, and meets jazz pianiast Seb (Gosling) who dreams of owning his own jazz club. They fall in love and try to chase their ambitions together, but at what cost to their relationship? Both Stone and Gosling are terrific, reviving the chemistry they displayed so well in Crazy Stupid Love, and both are surely shoo-ins for Oscar nominations.
Gosling displays all the easy-going charm and charisma that he’s built his career on, while Stone gets her career back on track after a couple of misfires like Aloha. There’s a wonderfully subtle little moment when Mia gets turned down during an audition – a look of total exasperation flashes across her face, before she beams a brilliant smile and carries on with her day. It’s the sort of acting that only a certain type of actor can pull off, and Stone does it brilliantly.
The real star though is Chazelle – he’s only 32 years old, but he handles his camera with the poise of a veteran like Scorsese. The aforementioned opening scene on the LA freeway is shot in a single take, and there’s a breathtaking sequence where Mia and Seb dance among the Hollywood hills which is handled with dizzying confidence by Chazelle.
The most divisive thing about La La Land will probably be the ending – I’m not going to spoil it here, but I found it one of the most emotionally satisfying pay-offs I’ve seen in a film for a long time. Personally, I have to agree with the critic from Vulture (warning: this article contains spoilers) who said the ending is what turns La La Land from a very good film into a great one.
There’s also a gorgeous score, with the film’s signature tune City of Stars, likely to haunt viewers for days on end after watching. The song’s key line “is this the start of something beautiful, or one more dream that I cannot make true” is the one that sums up the film: one that describes ambition, love and life, and one that everyone can readily identify with. I’ve not seen any other of the Oscar contenders yet, but Chazelle’s film is sure to be a well-deserved favourite.