When Damien Chazelle made Whiplash a couple of years ago, he made a film that assaulted the senses so perfectly it grabbed hold by the collar and refused to let go until the end. It was a visceral epic, a veritable war film, and it was about jazz drumming. He has returned with La La Land, a film that could not be more different in tone, but is every bit as excellent at capturing the essence of music, of passion, and of dreaming for greatness, as Whiplash was. More proof that Chazelle is not just an extremely talented director, but one that understands, on a very human level, the themes with which he grapples.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are very strong leads who have a clear chemistry that may be a result of the films they have done in the past together, but the film isn’t reliant on them, showing in its opening sequence that it’s about more than just two characters, but about the struggle for worthwhile artistic endeavours. Nonetheless, both of the main characters are intrinsically appealing and embody different aspects of that search for meaning and fulfilment. Stone’s Mia aspires to be an actress, and is enthusiastic and talented but starting to feel that perhaps her dream is just out of her grasp, growing slowly disillusioned with the drudgery and lack of respect received at auditions. Gosling’s Sebastian, on the other hand, is an unabashed stubborn idealist convinced both that jazz is the greatest music in the world and that he will be able to open his own jazz club and save the whole genre at the same time. The two work off each other extremely well, and make for a very engaging pair on screen.
The film is unambiguously nostalgic, yearning for a magical era of film-making that is perhaps more myth than reality, but that plays in to its themes perfectly, mirroring the idealism of its characters and their yearning for something more. Obviously, it harks back to the likes of Singing In The Rain, Chazelle’s desire to recall the golden age of the Hollywood musical era is clear in every shot and he constructs each and every scene beautifully to both recall those classics and seek to forge a new path for musicals. In fact, the musical sequences themselves are all gems, from the grand opening that introduces us to Los Angeles through a gridlocked freeway, through to its beautiful ‘magic hour’ sequence on a hilltop where our main characters express a lack of interest for each other, but below the surface the chemistry from that point is undeniable. City of Stars, a song that encapsulates the feeling of the film, has been getting a lot of awards buzz, and would completely deserve the Academy award for which it is nominated.
It’s impressive how different this film is from Whiplash, and yet how well Chazelle can capture those different ends of the spectrum. Whereas the camera on Whiplash was often right in the face of the main character to intensify the experience, here we get a camera that moves freely, moving to emphasise the dreamy, fantastical nature of some of the sequences, most clearly in a sequence where Mia and Sebastian fly across an observatory, lost in the music. There’s a joy and enthusiasm about La La Land that is impossible to ignore, but also a poignancy and depth that shines throughout, its well constructed characters tackling painfully real issues and facing dilemmas that are always portrayed as difficult and life-changing. Equal parts heartbreaking and uplifting, it resonates on a deep level and refuses to let go, finishing with an extremely powerful sequence that encapsulates all those feelings. It’s a masterpiece, and another mark of Chazelle’s vast talent.
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