Film Discussion

La La Land – Looking back on First Man director Damien Chazelle’s musical

If there is a potential legacy that La La Land is going to leave behind, it’s that it might prove to be one of those pub quiz questions that will trip up competitors in the manner of “just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water” or Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s first on-screen appearance together.

Mistakably announced as the Best Picture Winner of the 89th Academy Awards, the true winner was Moonlight. The Academy made the right choice for sure, Barry Jenkins’ film was a devastatingly brilliant film that was, and will continue to be, incredibly important, but make no mistake, it doesn’t take away from the magical brilliance at the heart of Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash.

Premiering throughout the Festival circuit throughout the latter half of 2016, La La Land became a firm critical favourite even before it made its way into general release, something which may explain why the film became a prime target for a backlash almost right away.  For most of the second half of 2016, it was hard not to hear of how brilliant Chazelle’s new film was, with most of the first batch of reviews coming out a good three or four months before the film was even playing in cinemas.

While some of the criticism of the film was unfair, others, namely that lead character Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and his attempts at saving jazz reeked of “white saviour complex”, definitely had merit, but taken on its own values as a musical romance that pays tribute to the musicals of a bygone old while being its own modern-day romantic drama with two of the best modern-day movie stars front and centre, then La La Land was an undisputed triumph.

Photo by Dale Robinette

While the film could easily have been done as a small-scale indie love story, Chazelle aims more for the stars with a tale set in the heart of Los Angeles, with the city itself photographed in dazzling fashion by Linus Sandgren, backed by a superb score once again courtesy of Justin Hurwitz and fantastic songs courtesy of Dear Evan Hansen and The Greatest Showman‘s Pasek and Paul.

The film would prove to be incredibly cine-literate, unabashedly romantic, humorous with an emotional undercurrent which would reach a devastatingly poignant crescendo in its final moments, a punch the air brilliant finale that would stir the heart, make one laugh but work the tear ducts in a way that the entirety of the film had previously done so, summing up the film perfectly and magically.

An on-screen reunion between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (Crazy, Stupid Love and the not as memorable Gangster Squad), the film focuses on the romance between Sebastian and Mia; he’s a struggling jazz musician who dreams of opening his own jazz club, she’s a struggling actress trying to nail any audition that comes her way.

On paper, it sounds like a clichéd, derivative piece of nonsense waiting to come to life, but on-screen, the results are dazzling with a touch of magic, but with doses of reality throughout. The first half of the film plays in the way you would expect a romantic musical with such a plot, but it hits the notes perfectly, opening with a musical number so brilliantly performed and choreographed that you’re almost in fear of the film not being able to top it, but which it is able to do so on a more emotive and intimate way.

READ MORE: Whiplash – Keeping tempo with First Man director Damien Chazelle

Set on a busy California freeway, the fact that Chazelle managed to pull off such a brilliant opener on a freeway that is notoriously busy (they managed to do it on a stretch that was closed for roadworks) is a piece of classic movie magic, not to mention the song itself, Another Day of Sun, is an earworm that will not leave your head for days.

Following the “meet cute” romance between its central pair, the first half of the film plays in every way you would expect, with the two of them not quite liking each other, then falling in love, all the while singing and dancing with LA as the backdrop, with a plethora of upbeat jazzy numbers, poignant tunes reflecting character development and the eventual catharsis as they dance among the stars at the Griffith Park Observatory.

The first half ends in a way that you would almost expect the film to actually starting rolling its credits, but reality sets in by the second half, with Sebastian deciding to become a pianist for a jazz fusion band headed by his friend Keith (John Legend), a decision which begins to break their relationship apart as both realise that neither is where they want to be in their lives professionally.

It builds to a gorgeously mounted final scene that stings beautifully and leaves one with a real lump in the throat. Like Whiplash, it ends with a personal moment shared between two characters who smile at each other, but whereas Whiplash ended in such a way that it invited discussion and debate, there is nothing to be deciphered in the final moments between Sebastian and Mia. Sometimes it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Photo by Dale Robinette

While the film did quickly invite a backlash against its white guy making jazz cool again, or the fact it focused on two white characters compared to the racially relevant Moonlight, it is hard not be swept away by the scale and romance on offer here.

There is a resolutely old-fashioned feel here at times, but then the film hits you with reminders that the film may be playing in a musical wheelhouse, the reality is never too far away. Chazelle’s script hits all the right notes, his direction even more so, with the choice to film the opening number in one take making it a breathtaking way to open the film, while there is a gorgeous use of colour dotted throughout within the costume and production design.

Where Whiplash was deeply dark and its tone confrontational to an almost uncomfortable degree, La La Land offers a more hopeful counterpart to Whiplash’s darker overtones. That isn’t to say it’s all lightness and sweet with Chazelle’s follow-up; the film’s second half isn’t afraid to lay on angst, but it never leaves the stomach in knots the way Fletcher and Neiman’s interactions did; La La Land is much more frothier concoction, and while the froth gets a touch more bitter as the film goes on, it never becomes distressingly so, but it does aim for pathos and deep emotion and it takes a strong heart not to be moved by the film’s very final moment, played out in a room full of people, but which is as deeply intimate as any love scene.

READ MORE: Follow our coverage of this year’s London Film Festival right here at Set The Tape

Ironically, for a film with a song sung by Ryan Gosling entitled City of Stars, the next film, a reunion between star and director, would actually go to the stars. First Man will be Chazelle’s first non-music related film and the results already appear to be strong based on first reviews. Another tale of determination, the scales are much grander and bigger than simply trying to make it as a musician but taken together Whiplash and La La Land are a wonderful case of apples and oranges; music and talent, unfulfilled potential with climaxes that stir the hearts in completely different ways.

Whiplash may be the more intense film, but La La Land offers magic and poignancy in a gloriously wonderful way we haven’t seen in a while and as such, it may be the film of the two that will have you returning to it again and again. It still manages to sting like a bee, but it’ll leave you with a smile on your face, even if it is a sad one.

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