Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
More often than not, my favourite films of any given year are likely screen at the BFI London Film Festival, and in 2014 Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash was no exception. So when I heard he was working on a musical, with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, I was very excited. Then, it screened at Venice, to much acclaim, and then it was announced to screen in London, with a lot of hype making it a very difficult ticket to get. There were a lot of expectations attached to La La Land by the time I arrived for the 10:30am repeat LFF screening, but never has a film so successfully met, and then exceeded these high expectations.
Set in LA, the film follows the relationship of an aspiring actress, Mia, (Emma Stone) and a jazz musician, Seb, (Ryan Gosling), as they follow their respective dreams, while also singing and dancing (and tap-dancing) on occasion.
Stone and Gosling have been paired before in Crazy Stupid Love, and they are just as good together in this, if not better. This may be my favourite Emma Stone performance, and she completely deserves to be recognised for it. I feel like Ryan Gosling has done better in other roles, but ones that required something entirely different from him, so I might be being a little unfair.
There isn’t much that hasn’t already been said in other reviews, not that I’ve read many of them. I’ve read a few times about how it’s ‘nostalgia done right’, but for someone who didn’t grow up watching MGM musicals (I saw Singin’ in the Rain properly for the first time in my twenties), I see it more as a film that explores themes that other films have been doing for decades, most obviously the American Dream, but in an modern, contemporary way, relevant to the generation that will seek out an Emma Stone/Ryan Gosling film, in spite of it being a musical. It also pretty much perfects the musical as a form of storytelling. Hollywood musicals are quite rare now, which in theory is a shame, but given what is sometimes produced, maybe they should be limited to those filmmakers who know what they’re doing. La La Land really hits the nail on the head though, it isn’t apologetic about having song and dance numbers, but it also keeps them in line with the general tone of the film. If they start singing, or dancing, it feels like the most natural thing to happen in that moment.
La La Land really made me think of Bollywood. Some people might read that as a criticism, or think I intend it as one, but my love of Bollywood is greater than Hollywood musicals, so it really is not. A lot of what Chazelle gets right in this, is what a handful of Bollywood directors have perfected in musicals over the years. I don’t doubt that the big MGM musicals were inspiration for Bollywood directors back in the day, but what Hollywood stop doing regularly, and then pretty much abandoned, Bollywood continued to do. A lot of Indian directors get it very wrong, but some get it La La Land level of right, which has taken them some practice, but took Chazelle only his third feature film. (He made a musical as his first feature film, entitled Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.)
If anyone who loved this, hasn’t seen a Bollywood film, or hasn’t seen the right ones, I would definitely recommend seeking some good ones out. I might even do a list at some point on this, but off the top of my head, directors to consider include: Zoya Akhtar, Yash Chopra, Karan Johar, Sanjay Leela Bhansali (earlier work, over recent), and select Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra titles. Bollywood has many, many other brilliant filmmakers, but this list is a starting point for musical/La La Land fans.
La La Land is easily the best English-language film I’ll see this year, and possibly the best English-language musical we’ll see for a while, though I’m happy to be proven wrong. I haven’t read any, but I’m assuming other people are making comparisons to Singin’ in the Rain as well, but the only other time I have felt so full of joy and love for a film was when I saw Singin’ in the Rain for the first time, on the big screen at the BFI Southbank, and that isn’t a comparison I’d make lightly. I hope, years from now, future generations watch La La Land for the first time and experience the same joy and emotions that both these films gave me.
La La Land releases on 16th December 2016 in the USA, and January 13th 2017 in the UK.