Sunday, 9 October 2016

BFI LFF 2016: LA LA LAND - Dir. Damien Chazelle

In the opening of Damien Chazelle’s modern musical, the camera pans back along a traffic jam. A variety of modern notes and beats emerge from open car windows; travelling back through the years until the camera stops on the first soloist and kicks the film into life. It’s an opening that perfectly captures the film’s affection for the past but also acknowledging the passing of time since then.

In the traffic jam are Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone); the former scanning his tape player for the right song, the latter practising lines for her latest audition. Their paths are destined to cross, though perhaps not as smoothly as they could.

Since its Venice premiere, La La Land has been positioned as a firm Oscar favourite and it’s easy to see why. This is a top-tapping, finger clicking musical that was once the staple of Hollywood studios but is now normally reserved for the theatre. It gently mocks modern Hollywood whilst also showing a great reverence for it too. You can probably get longer odds on the likelihood of the sun rising tomorrow than you could on La La Land taking away the Golden Globe for Best Comedy/Musical in December.

The film is undoubtedly harking back to musicals of old but any references (such as Gosling’s brief dalliance with a lamp post) are either accidental or so well integrated that they don’t overtly draw attention, miles away from the less than conspicuous references that have somehow become a point of praise in modern blockbusters.

Both Seb and Maria are passionate about dying art forms. Seb has a love of jazz and the endless creative freedom it brings whilst Maria has a love of old movies and the notion of sitting in a darkened cinema to savour them. This draws them together (after some persuasion on both sides). The opening stretches, covering the couple’s courtship, gallops at a relentless pace from one musical number to the next. The music and choreography work in tandem, making a mockery of many modern music videos and their arrhythmic limb waving. It’s a joyously witty game of call and response with Gosling and Stone tapping and swirling their way across a vibrant Los Angeles.

Anyone who’s seen Crazy, Stupid, Love. will be aware of the chemistry shared between Gosling and Stone and Chazelle trusts in their shared timing and delivery to keep the film flowing. Plaudits for his directing have been numerous, but it’s Chazelle’s skill as a writer that is the primary key to his success (his script for Grand Piano acknowledges the inherent ridiculousness of its premise without undermining the tension of the story). La La Land is chock full of wise cracks and jokes with second and third punchlines, all captured by an ever moving but never erratic camera. 

It’s all so dizzyingly wonderful but it’s also not surprising that the film can’t maintain this level razzmatazz and Chazelle doesn’t want to either. Unlike recent Oscar winner The Artist, this isn’t nostalgia for the sake of it and Chazelle confronts the fact that both Seb and Maria are longing for a time already passed. Their idols may have had their own favourite artists but they were visionaries and dreamers in their own right. Where the story goes is for an audience to discover. It feels a little sluggish here but perhaps that’s only in contrast to the earlier pace. The ending though is undoubtedly one for the ages: at once electrifying and yet tinged with the longing for a life not lived. I hope La La Land becomes the huge success it deserves to be; we really don’t deserve nice things in the future if we can’t be bothered to cherish this charming film.

La La Land plays at 60th BFI London Film Festival on Sunday 16th October 2016. It opens in UK cinemas on Friday 13th January 2017.

Visit the festival website for screening times and ticket details.

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