Film Review: La La Land – A Fine Fantasy, Or Thinking That Holly Probably Wood

January 29, 2017



La La Land / Directed by Damien Chazelle / PG13


La La Land. There’s a clue in the name – this is a fairy tale, not to be taken seriously. It’s incredibly simplistic because it’s a dream placed on a screen, not experience lived out and reflected on. And it works because young director Damien Chazelle (who seemed to come out of the blue with Whiplash, but is now, already laden with gongs, a probable future constant on nomination lists) is so in love with the version of Los Angeles he presents here that you can’t help but be caught up in his passion.

As promising jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) get to know each other and begin a relationship – no spoiler; check the poster – everything is painted in the broadest possible strokes. When Mia and her friends go out, they wear dresses in a range of primary colours. When Sebastian is offered a gig by an old mate in a club, the bloke looks and sounds like John Legend (because he is). And when a sad song has to be sung, there’s a handy pier to do it on, backed by a moody sky.

So is it a brilliant film, textured with layers of meaning, testing its audience’s intellectual capacity? No. But it drips with romance. And yearning. And promise. And for that it deserves acknowledgement – it’s a cause for celebration.

Sebastian loves jazz more than just about anything in the world, but his high standards frustrate his potential to progress in any meaningful way as a professional musician and club owner (his ultimate goal). Mia is increasingly frustrated with the way she and countless cookie-cutter copies are treated during the audition process and as human beings in general, but her vision for her future is built on screen success, so she continues to try, despite countless failures.

Both believe in the power of the Hollywood myth to lift them ever upward; to draw them ever towards the realised fantasy that’s at the centre of their lifelong investment. In a political climate or news cycle that wasn’t dominated by business-driven brutality of the new US President and his systematical dismantling of what used to be the American Dream, Chazelle’s homage to the film industry’s Golden Age would be a gleeful, skip-down-the-garden-path flippancy. As it is, it feels like an almost desperate entreaty to enjoy romance, nostalgia, desire, whimsy, imagination, innocence and glorious naivety while there’s still room for such things in our collective experience.

La La Land has a beauty that’s more than skin deep but not so profound that it will compel all around it to fall into step with its sentimentalised perspectives. Chazelle – as writer and director – knows that, and cleverly steers the film off its most obvious possible trajectory to give it a satisfyingly poignant conclusion, out of step with the massed song and dance numbers that take place earlier in the piece and quite different to the traditional Hollywood ending. Irony amid all that apparent artlessness: this is not as insubstantial a project as those who doubt its credentials may feel. That said, if awards judges continue to shower the film with silverware, they might be forgiven for doing so because the picture it paints of the heart of the film industry, with all its associated glamour, optimism and aspiration, is as pretty and well realised as La La Land is.