It would have been almost impossible for my most-anticipated film of the year to live up to my expectations. After all, I’m a huge fan of musicals, so when an old-fashioned indie musical gets rave reviews, I have to be thinking that it might become my favourite film of the year, if not the decade. There was no place to go but down, and down it went, with one disappointment after another. ‘But Vic’, you say, ‘you started this review with a “Wow”’. I did indeed, because, as disappointing as La La Land was, I still loved it and it’s still going to be in my list of ‘Top Ten Films of 2016’, which will be coming out in about two weeks. It will not, however, be number one on that list.
La La Land, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, begins magnificently with a song and dance number on the L.A. freeway during a typical morning traffic jam. If it could have kept up that kind of pace for the rest of the film, as Moulin Rouge did in 2001, then number one would have been assured. But after the first half hour or so, La La Land begins to fade, with far too few songs for a musical (in my opinion).
Emma Stone plays Mia, who works in a coffee shop but dreams of being a film actress and spends her spare time doing auditions. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a small-time jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own jazz club. Mia and Sebastian meet at a low point in both of their careers and, of course, fall in love (no real spoiler there). The romance grows, but also falters, as Mia and Sebastian pursue their dreams, a pursuit which will have lots of ups and downs. I’ll say no more about the plot.
The key theme in La La Land is whether love is more important than this pursuit of one’s dreams. There is reason to believe the film is ambivalent in its response to this question, leaving lots of room for discussion, which is good, but there’s also reason to challenge the overall direction (regarding this theme) of this young filmmaker’s intelligent and original screenplay.
I’ve always admired Stone but her performance here is beyond terrific (one of the best of the decade) and she deserves an Oscar for this. Gosling was good enough but he failed to impress me (though the obvious chemistry between him and Stone made up for that). The singing of Stone and Gosling was, however, one of my disappointments. I’m not an expert on singing, but it was obvious to me that Stone and Gosling were not singers prior to the making of La La Land and it shows.
While there were too few songs in La La Land, the quality of the music by Justin Hurwitz exceeded my expectations, as did the cinematography, which was nothing short of perfection. And the ending was, for me, exactly right and a pure delight. The secondary theme of nostalgia, portrayed through Sebastian's desire to save jazz (standing in for Chazelle's desire to save film musicals) was also critical to my enjoyment of the film.
Any attempt to bring back this almost-forgotten genre is going to impress me, regardless of how well it’s done. In this case, Stone’s great performance, along with La La Land’s focus on dreams and love, its marvellous cinematography, its beautiful music and Chazelle’s flawless direction, lift the film easily into my top ten of the year, despite my disappointments. This is what filmmaking is about - magic. A solid ****. My mug is up and I can’t wait to see it again (maybe next week!).