La La Land hits the screens

Photo courtesy of: Lionsgate

As Oscar Wilde wrote in Lady Windermere’s Fan: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” And deep down in the gutter – and then some – is where our two protagonists find themselves at the start of writer and director Damien Chazelle’s wonderful romantic comedy La La Land as they struggle to juggle artistic ambitions with the domestic realities of paying the rent.

Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who works as a low-paid barista for a high-maintenance coffee shop owner on the grounds of Warner Bros. Studios, is on the verge of putting away her toys and getting a normal job after the daily round of cattle-market auditions and soul-destroying rejections begin to take their toll. Likewise Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist forced to play elevator music in a soulless cocktail bar after his romantic dreams of running a jazz club end in financial disaster.

“Why do you say ‘romantic’ as if it’s a dirty word?” he snaps at his sister Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt). To which she crushingly replies: “Unpaid bills aren’t romantic.” A situation which goes from bad to worse when he gets fired by his no-nonsense boss (J. K. Simmons) for straying from an agreed set list of festive tunes to play one of his own free jazz compositions which becomes the film’s central theme. “It’s Christmas,” he pleads with doe-eyed desperation. “Yeah,” sneers Bill. “I see the decorations. Good luck in the New Year.”

Then chance brings Mia and Sebastian together. First after Another Day Of Sun, a vibrant opening number filmed in a wonderful single tracking shot by Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, Joy), which shows people from all shapes and sizes and all creeds and colours “Reaching all the heights / And chasing all the lights” as they swap their gridlocked lives in the rat race for a liberating song-and-dance number on the freeway. Albeit one which ends with Sebastian tooting his horn in frustration at a slow-moving Mia who returns the favour with a middle finger salute.

Their subsequent chance encounters are equally inauspicious, none more so than the ironically entitled love song that isn’t a love song A Lovely Night which subverts the romantic setting of a lamplit bench overlooking a purple sky as the sun sets slowly behind the rolling Hollywood hills with the caustic lyrics: “This could never be / You’re not the type for me / And not a spark in sight / What a waste of a lovely night!” But from little acorns of mutual interest grow mighty oak trees of mutual affection. And before you can say, “Wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute, Sebastian is swinging round that lamp post like Gene Kelly in Singin’ In The Rain,” he and she become we.

The rest of the film is really about following your dreams and giving it all you’ve got; realising that you will have to make major sacrifices along the way and that you will undoubtedly face crushing disappointments; and that focusing on what you have in the here-and-now rather than what you could have had if you had only done x, y and z in the there-and-then is a far healthier mindset. Though it’s also a celebration of artists and risk-takers and in the words of Dylan Thomas those who refuse to “go gentle into that good night”. As epitomised by Mia’s audition song The Fools Who Dream about an aunt who “leapt without looking” into the Seine: “Here’s to the ones who dream / Foolish as they may seem / Here’s to the hearts that ache / Here’s to the mess we make.”

I loved La La Land. I repeat: loved. From the unashamedly cheesy opening to the unexpectedly poignant finale, filmmaker Damien Chazelle had me in the palm of his hand. As he had with 10 Cloverfield Lane (which he co-wrote) and Whiplash (which he wrote and directed). The soundtrack by Justin Hurwitz and editing by Tom Cross (both of whom worked on Whiplash, the former earning a Grammy nomination, the latter an Oscar statuette) are terrific. As is the lush cinematography by Linus Sandgren. The performances by and chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are electric, charming and nuanced. And it is little wonder that the film won a record seven Golden Globes and that Chazelle is widely tipped to become the youngest-ever winner of Best Director at next month’s Academy Award ceremony.

But La La Land is about much more than the red carpets and golden gongs or the fleeting fame and brittle egos of Hollywood where, as Sebastian says, “they worship everything and value nothing.” It’s about art and dreams, love and happiness, and the pursuit thereof. Something which he talks about with great passion after seeing a legendary jazz club reduced to a tacky Tapas & Tunes restaurant: “Jazz is dying on the vine and the world says, ‘Let it die, it’s had its time.’ Well, not on my watch.”

For “jazz” read live music venues, comedy clubs, theatres, art galleries and independent cinemas. Particularly those outwith cities and tourist hotspots. If we don’t use them, we’ll lose them. And as Meryl Streep said in her recent attack on Donald Trump, “you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts – which are not the arts.” As for criticism that La La Land is overly sentimental and more of a musical than the slickly edited trailer suggests, as Sebastian says to Mia when discussing whether people will like her nostalgic one-woman show – “Fuck ‘em!” Or as Oscar Wilde more politely put it in an echo of Sebastian’s critique of L.A.: “[A cynic is] a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Video courtesy of: Lionsgate Films

La La Land (2016)
La La Land poster Rating: 8.8/10 (67,794 votes)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Amiée Conn, Terry Walters
Runtime: 128 min
Rated: PG-13
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Musical
Released: 25 Dec 2016
Plot: A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.
Peter Callaghan

Peter Callaghan

Writer at reviewsphere
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Dramatic Studies graduate, actor, writer and drama workshop leader. As well as a performance poet and corporate roleplayer.
Peter Callaghan

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