One of the good things about the Oscars season (or the Baftas season, if you’re British) is that you get so much information about which movies are good and which aren’t that you have to be some sort of a klutz not to be able to find something to go and see at the local flea pit.
But one movie doing rather well in the glitz- and glamour-loaded awards stakes has divided audiences. Not the professional audiences – critics have almost universally loved it, and it’s tipped to pick up plenty of gongs yet awhile. No, it’s the ordinary punters who seem to range from utterly under-whelmed to utterly over-whelmed and every possible reaction in-between when they go and see La La Land, driven there by the studio’s relentless publicity machine and, you know, the “buzz”.
So we thought we’d better eyeball it in order to tell you, Dear Reader – should you be the only other person on the planet apart from us who hasn’t seen it yet – whether or not you should shell out your hard-earned and see it.
Well, in short, go and see it. And go and see it soon while it’s still on at the multiplex, so you can enjoy it in all its primary-coloured glory and big speaker luscious sound.
As everyone must know by now, it’s a studied – even mannered – revival of the old-style Hollywood musical, where realism is set aside and people burst into song (or dance) in the middle of dramatic moments as if that’s the most natural thing in the world. And done as well as this, it feels as natural as any glorious Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movie flickering away on late night TV, and that’s really the goal of the movie maker here, as well as the highest praise one can offer him. Because young director Damien Chazelle pulls off this tricky task with great aplomb, and we should be grateful to him (and the Producers who backed him) for even attempting such a ridiculously old-fashioned task. And for the vast majority of the movie he makes it look easy, which it unquestionably wasn’t.
There are moments of delightful hyper-realism, too, where things that just can’t happen in a world dragged down by miserable killjoys like the laws of physics nevertheless can and do happen, and when these unlikely events occur we realise that we are being invited in to a sort of cinematic guilty pleasure – a place where the world is frequently very funny, or charming or sad or even heart-wrenching, but where somehow you just know things will turn out OK, and it’s OK for an hour or two to forget about how nasty the world has become, or, indeed, whether or not it ever actually stopped being nasty to begin with.
It isn’t, by any means, a great movie. In years to come it will not be seen as setting (or more like reversing) a trend. We won’t see a rash of new musicals as a result of it, simply because they’re so damned hard to do well. But it is a very, very good movie, and for some very specific reasons.
La La Land received critical acclaim upon its release and is regarded as one of the best films of 2016. Critics praised Chazelle’s screenplay and direction, Gosling and Stone’s performances, Justin Hurwitz’s musical score, and the film’s musical numbers. At the up-coming 89th Academy Awards, the film is nominated for a record-tying fourteen Oscars (along with 1997’s Titanic and 1950’s All About Eve), including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Ryan Gosling), Best Actress (Emma Stone) and two Best Original Songs, “Audition” and “City of Stars”. The film also won in every category it was nominated for at the 74th Golden Globe Awards with a record-breaking seven wins.
But that list of facts doesn’t tell the story of the movie. Indeed, it may over-state the movie’s worth, because it implies it is somehow the Greatest Story Ever Told, but it isn’t that. What it is a thoroughly decent feel-good tale of young love that rubs every academy member and film buff up the right way, and could hardly be more tuned to have them gushing their praises (and votes) in response. The luvvies will, in simple terms, love every minute of it, because it’s all about a time when movies that simply made you feel good – not just to watch them, but to make them – were the norm rather than the exception. And no, no-one would turn the clock back holus bolus to the sanitised days before gritty realism, gruelling depictions of violence or emotional distress, and grunting, inavriably perfect sex between twenty-five foot high naked bodies and all the rest of it. But oh my, it is nice to get a rest from all of that, just every now and again.
The real story of this movie, though, is that parts of it are perfect. And here, Dear Reader, we are going to cut the crap and get to the point.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are beautiful. And we don’t mean easy-on-the-eye. We mean smack-you-in-the-eye heart-stoppingly “Dear God, how does anyone ever end up as cute as that” beautiful. Which is all very well, except that it’s not just their physiognomy or physique that makes them so. What makes these two actors so sigh-inducingly gorgeous is that their very niceness shines out of them throughout this ambitious film.
Indeed, it could be argued that Stone doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter layout of a typical starlet. If you wanted to (unfairly) rip her looks to shreds then her eyes sometimes somehow seem a bit big for her head, she’s got pale skin and freckles not an LA tan, and a noticeable over-bite, which the actress blames on sucking her thumb till she was 11. In so far as anyone’s hair colour these days is set in any one part of the spectrum, she’s a redhead in a town of blondes. (Although actually, and not many people know this, she is naturally blonde.) And whilst she has an adorably husky voice, she has a lisp, for heaven’s sake. She explains her famously throaty tones as follows: “They were actually deeper when I was younger. I have nodules and calluses on my vocal chords from suffering from colic as a baby. I had to do speech therapy when I was a kid to learn how to speak in a higher register,” she says. “But I still have a little lisp. I didn’t fix it all.”
So how does Stone pull off secreting herself in our hearts so thoroughly in this movie? Simple: you’re looking not at her features, whether or not you think she’s gorgeous, (we do), but at who she is inside.
Everything is on open display here, a smorgasbord of feelings from a young actress now effortlessly hitting her stride. She is by turns ditzy, thoughtful, passionate, romantic, sensual, funny, sad, broken-hearted, tearful, angry and resentful. And her emotional range as displayed here is not only enormous, it is utterly convincing. Indeed, at many points in the film – the show stopping song “Audition”, for example, and when Gosling seeks to persuade her that she has the talent to succeed, and riven with fear and self-doubt Stone petulantly disagrees – that we feel like we are actually watching Stone as Mia as Stone as Mia and where, we wonder, does the dividing line actually lie?
Emma Stone left nothing to chance in this career-defining performance, and we’ll be mildly astonished if she doesn’t walk away with the Best Actress statuette, despite some magnificent opposition (in particular from Natalie Portman in Jackie.)
Perennial heart-throb Gosling is equally good. For one thing, he makes room to let Stone shine, which was a generous act by a hot-as-the-sun star lead who also seems like a genuinely nice guy, as evidenced by his sincere thanks to his partner Eva Mendes for looking after the home front as he waded through the intense preparation for the role, which included actually learning to play the piano and to tap dance.
By not over-powering the whirling tornado of a performance from Stone, Gosling deserves praise for delivering the film balance and poise with his light touch. If he had been chewing the scenery there would simply have been too much to watch – the love affair would have become a caricature, the career strivings a mere artifice. As it is, we suspend disbelief and believe in the two lovers completely. His jazz-pianist cum latent club-owning businessman character is thoughtful, full of repressed humour and passion, and under-stated to the nth degree. In his smouldering eyes, whimsical smile, and rampantly out of control lick of hair, he is also completely credible, and we get the strong impression that a night in a jazz bar sharing a beer with this soulful dreamer and then listening to him musingly tinkle the ivories would be a rather wonderful way to waste an hour or three. Again, the over-riding impression is not of his frame and facial features – ideal though they may be – it is of the person inside.
With so much else going on in this film, for these two young actors to both deliver performances so nuanced and deep is remarkable.
And there is so much more going on. Some of the dance sequences are truly charming, and the choreography superb, and well judged. Neither Stone or Gosling are asked to do the impossible, and what they do in return for this consideration is smart, sassy and flawless. Similarly with the singing – neither would consider themselves singers first and foremost, but they hold a tune well, and much more importantly, deliver it as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to be singing to one another while waltzing. As the LA Times noted of their dancing:
“La La Land” shows that you actually don’t have to have professional dancers with brilliant technique for a dance pairing to work. Put attractive people together, have them lock eyes, move feet in unison and you can get a believable love duet. What is dancing but full-body, kinetic expression exploding outward for everyone to see? And it may be just about the best way to expose the raw and visceral emotions of new-love, fireworks feelings. A choreographer must be attuned to the message conveyed by every step, every swing of the leg or wave of an arm. For “La La Land,” Mandy Moore deserves much of the credit in translating the story’s love narrative so well into dance language.
Amen to that. As for the singing, the film is worth seeing for Stone’s performance of ‘Audition’ alone. You’ll see what we mean. Remember to breathe, people.
Not all the set-pieces work, to our eyes. Some have raved about the film’s opening sequence – a mass dance-in that occurs spontaneously in a traffic queue on a LA freeway. We thought it felt a little forced. And a little too “Fame” for our liking, too. But that is quibbling: in a brave movie, one can’t get everything right, and anyway, as we say, lots of people liked it.
One of the best things about this film is the way Director Chazelle has eschewed lots of jiggly-fiddly editing and allowed the actors and the scenes to do their job. Just like back in the good old days, the actors fill the screen with both their dancing and their singing. It’s unvarnished movie making, in a way, though that would be to fail to praise the effortlessly good cinematography and especially the exceptionally precise use of colour and lighting to convey mood. It hardly needs to be said that the score, and the lyrics, are simply fantastic, and never better than when the film focuses on its core act of theatre, the jazz itself.
So: it is not a perfect film. But it tries very hard to be so, and there is a great deal to admire. It has already taken ten times at the Box Office what it cost to make, which is decent recompense for the courage shown in making it in the first place.
And most importantly, you’ll walk out of it with a smile playing on your lips, and realise you haven’t thought about Donald bloody Trump for more than two whole hours.
For that reason alone, it is surely worthy of high praise, and well worthy of your time.