It’s rare to live a film so completely as one does La La Land…
How in the Hell do you follow up a masterpiece like Whiplash? Young go-getter Damien Chazelle made minor waves with his début film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and engaged in a little bit of script-doctor work to support himself, before delivering one of the greatest films of this, or any other, decade. In the extremely unlikely event that you haven’t seen it yet, do so. Your brain’ll thank me, though your body, exhausted from 100 unrelenting minutes, will not. The picture made the top ten lists of every single critic in the world and won three Oscars, though the Academy rather foolishly put Birdman ahead of it for Best Picture. It also managed to gross $50m on a budget of $3m, by the way.
All of this is to say that, if I were Chazelle and about to deliver a follow-up to one of the greatest almost-débuts in cinema history, I wouldn’t have a clue what to do. Anything too out-there is a risk, and there are hundreds of once-promising directors who’ve proved incapable of following-up a major success, and seen their careers go down the toilet as a result: witness Michael Cimino, M. Night Shyamalan, Richard Kelly. On the other hand, to deliver anything too similar to Whiplash would be to make a public admission of one-trick pony status, possibly resulting in a permanent pigeonholing. Many directors even pigeonhole themselves: it’s hard to see the latest picture by David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, Lars von Trier or Gaspar Noé without suspecting that their process goes something like: “What film would I make?”. So as you can imagine, I was excited and ever-so-slightly uneasy as La La Land opened with its self-consciously artificial use of black-and-white studio idents and the old CinemaScope logo. Fiddling around with the opening logos was clever and stylish when Tim Burton first did it for Batman, but nowadays it’s practically the standard. A radio flickers into life, and we hear music. We’re on an overpass in LA, and we’re hearing – no, wait, never mind. As the camera passes each gridlocked car in sequence, we’re given just a snatch of its inhabitants’ music of choice. Two of these drivers really matter, but we’ll get to them later. First up, it’s time for the film’s first, jaw-dropping musical sequence. It begins with a young woman who leaves her car, walking through the traffic jam as she sings, alone, a passionately romantic song. Soon, she’s joined by others, then others, and then yet more. Eventually the entire overpass is swirling with music, co-ordinated primary colours, and perfectly-drilled choreography. This entire sequence is accomplished in a single moving shot. Those single takes are the hardest thing a filmmaker can possibly accomplish. What is its meaning in cinematographic terms? That you’re watching a master at work, and they want you to know it. That’s all well and good. Just as it usually goes in musicals, the number ends with a flourish, and all the singers and dancers return awkwardly to their business, as if slightly embarrassed by having been caught up in the moment so.
At the promotional screening I attended, it elicited applause. To an American reader, that’s an encouraging sign but hardly a marvel. Here in the UK, we don’t clap in films. It’s simply not done. And, to be fair, there was no more applause until the credits rolled. But the fact that it happened at all is a clear sign of the film’s power to exhilarate audiences. That extraordinary introductory sequence finished, the film is ready to introduce us to its principals. Cocky Ryan Gosling obsessively rewinds the tape in his tape deck, always frustrated by what he hears. Is he looking for the synthpop he so enjoyed in Drive? No time to answer that; the traffic’s moving, and he’s hassling Emma Stone in the car ahead of him, too busy reading pages of a script to have noticed. There is a brief altercation, and he overtakes her and zooms off. Don’t worry, they’ll meet again at various Hollywood parties, hating each other until – what do you know? – they begin to fall for each other. He’s a passionate jazz pianist with a dream of opening a jazz club. Almost all he can talk about is jazz. She’s an aspiring actress, nearing thirty and never, ever having any success. They’re clearly destined for each other, and we the audience get to watch their relationship develop through various ups and downs, most of which are honestly too beautifully-pitched for me to want to bother describing them here prosaically. The plot is realised beautifully, and you owe it to yourself to see it play out.
What I will say is that it’s rare to live a film so completely as one does La La Land. We do not passively observe the highs and the lows of Stone and Gosling; they are ours, too. The joy onscreen is infectious, as is the heartbreak. We feel that we might as well be Stone, or Gosling, or both. It is not surprising that the two are so frequently paired, having previously co-starred in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, and assuredly to co-star in further projects in the future. They’re the closest thing we have here in the Tens to a Bogart and Bacall, a Fred and Ginger. La La Land was envisioned with Miles Teller and Emma Watson as its younger leads, and I’m sure it would still have been a brilliant film, but it’s hard to imagine those actors bouncing off each other with such unaffected lightness. Gosling in particular is an astounding actor. He never gives the impression he’s trying, and yet he is the most watchable man in Hollywood. I think watching him is rather like what first seeing Brando must have been like. Stone seems to work a little harder, but she remains one of the most instantly ingratiating actresses out there, and is equally adept with comedic and dramatic rôles. We root for this couple, and the things that come between them are painful to us. In broad structural terms, we might compare La La Land to New York, New York; it is the picture that one could have been, had it convinced. More obvious comparisons would be the likes of Singin’ in the Rain, Top Hat, and all the rest, which are obsessively invoked. Chazelle cited the kaleidoscopic documentary style of Berlin, Symphony of a Great City and Man With a Movie Camera as precedents for his vision of Hollywood, but they’re poor comparisons. He’s not working here as a documentarian, but a dreamer of dreams. The city is a plastic playground for Stone and Gosling. The rest of the cast barely gets a look-in, so dominating is its central couple, but John Legend is charismatic, kind and – obviously – talented, as a non-purist jazz musician at odds with Gosling. Elsewhere JK Simmons is humorously cast as a restaurant owner with no time for jazz. Given the cymbal-blow to the head he received in Whiplash, it’s no wonder he’s taking a break from it.
Let’s talk about jazz. When I typed that sentence, somewhere in the world, Damien Chazelle’s ears pricked up. I guarantee it. His first picture, Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench, was a musical romance about a free spirit and a jazz trumpeter. The short and later feature Whiplash is about a terrifyingly driven jazz drummer, and of course La La Land is about a jazz pianist. Of course it isn’t all jazz; the song score has a wonderful lightness, even a hipness, that is exactly what a Broadway musical should sound like in 2016. But the film isn’t about Broadway musicals, just because it is one. “Broadway” isn’t the genre whose name is spoken in almost every single scene, with an infectious passion. Gosling actually convinces Stone to become a fan of the genre, after she claims during an early meeting to hate jazz. He’s not just talking to her, but to the audience. Jazz is Chazelle’s message, here and everywhere. I’ll confess I’ve yet to see the picture, but if out of nowhere a character waxes poetic about Charlie Parker in The Last Exorcism Part II, then we’ll all know which of that picture’s writers is responsible. Chazelle directs his films with music in mind, and cuts them with the combination of wild abandon and strict discipline unique to jazz. Despite this consistency he is chameleonic; his candy-coloured, plastic-dreams vision of Hollywood here is about as far as you could get from the yellow-and-black New York of Whiplash. With La La Land, Chazelle triumphantly announces himself as a modern equivalent of Kubrick or Scorsese; a director who can move convincingly between genres and styles with ease, while remaining unmistakably himself. He’s also delivered the best new release since – well, since Whiplash.
La La Land opens in UK cinemas today (12th January), will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!