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FILM REVIEW: La La Land (2016)

The Verse’s Oliver Pendlington tells us what he thought of the latest comedy-musical, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, in his La La Land review.

Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Damien Channel
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt and J.K. Simmons
Plot: Aspiring jazz pianist Seb (Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Stone) have a chance encounter in a bar amidst the sun-soaked backdrop of Los Angeles. The two quickly fall in love and plan big dreams together, but the reality of constant failure and other lucrative opportunities puts their aspirations to the test.

A film that feels original, or at least authentically original, is an extremely rare thing to see in a modern film industry overrun by countless franchises with endless sequels, remakes, etc. It is also rare to see superb genres that were so prevalent in cinema’s Golden Age as a form of excitement, drama and pure joy, most of all the Musical. Happily, both are evident in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a true miracle of a film that is justifiably being called a modern masterpiece. Though set in the modern decade, its style is heavily steeped in the 1950s, a time when this wonderful medium was largely about making magic rather than money.

Much of the credit for all this must go to Chazelle, who, having already directed 2014’s gripping Whiplash, has firmly established himself as one of the best writers/directors of his generation. For La La Land, Chazelle’s greatest strength is paying loving homage to films of the past through taking creative risks that seem practically unheard of in this modern era. For instance, the opening number involving car drivers singing on a packed L.A. freeway may sound corny, certainly by modern standards. But Chazelle makes this such an enrapturing and colourful scene, all shot in one mesmerising take, that it instead beautifully invokes extravagant chorus numbers that were heavily prevalent in the Musical’s heyday. This makes the song both irresistibly delightful and touchingly nostalgic.

There are numerous other techniques that the film wonderfully uses to give it a 1950s aesthetic style. Most notable is the use of widescreen Cinemascope, which lends stunning depth to the glamourous character of a vibrant L.A. The songs and score by Justin Hurwitz are all superb and allow for some dazzling inventive sequences, notably Mia and Seb’s dance among the stars at Griffith Observatory and a dizzying swimming pool party. And yet these songs do not distract from the film’s bittersweet love story of a harsh world where aspirations and dreams are overshadowed by reality. The emphasis of being out of touch with reality is strongly played upon, making all the music and artistry on display reinforce the hope that what was old can be gloriously new again.

Of course, this would not be emotionally possible if Chazelle did not cast the right talented actors in his leading roles, the heart and soul of La La Land. He could not have done better than Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who instantly have charming chemistry with each other. Stone is excellent as Mia, conveying a whole range of emotions beneath her bubbly but determined attitude with a beauty reminiscent of starlets like Ginger Rogers. Gosling’s Seb, then, is the film’s Fred Astaire, a scruffy-looking but handsome man with a passion for making jazz art again. Even if the challenges the two must endure make the film sad at times, they do not detract from something so charming that even the most cynical person can smile about. A pure joy that is already one of the best films of the year.

Rating: 5/5

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