Damien Chazelle loves music. Jazz music to be more precise. A quick peruse through his IMDB credits shows that. Writer-director Chazelle made one of my favourite films of 2015 in the brilliant Whiplash, an intense study of a young music college student, who longs to be a great drummer and the maniacal music mentor, who drives him to the brink. Whiplash soundtrack is an ode to jazz, with classic jazz staples played throughout.
For his follow-up film, Chazelle once again shows his great affection for jazz. A very different film in every other aspect, La La Land is an extraordinary film, whilst still showing a Clint Eastwood-esque level of love for jazz.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress, working as a barista in LA. As well as working, she is caught up in the soul-destroying circus of audition attending, that is the lot of actors everywhere. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist. A jazz pianist. He can play other things, but he only wants to play jazz, much to his own detriment. He dreams of opening a nightclub where like-minded individuals can come and eat chicken and listen to jazz.
Mia and Sebastian first meet, briefly, on the LA freeway, where a tailgating Sebastian, angrily sounds his horn at the inert Mia as she sits it the traffic learning lines for an audition. They cross paths again when, having had her car towed after a night out, Mia wanders into a bar and is captivated by the piano player; Sebastian. When she goes to compliment him on his playing, he brushes past her, ignoring her completely. Their next meeting is at a party where Sebastian is working as part of an eighties tribute act, playing the keyboard. When leaving the party, Sebastian saves Mia from a boring writer and their relationship flourishes on the walk to her car.
Everything is great until they realise that their individual dreams will ultimately take them away from one another. So it proves when Sebastian decides to shelve his dream of ‘pure’ jazz and a nightclub, to join an old friend, Keith’s (John Legend) modern jazz band, thus beginning a life of touring. Meanwhile, encouraged by Sebastian, Mia writes a one-woman stage show, that flops on the opening night. Crushed by its failure and disappointed that Sebastian could not be there for the show, she leaves town and goes to her parents.
Sebastian receives a call from an agent looking for Mia. He goes and finds her and tells she must do the audition. The audition is successful but the job entails going to Paris. Mia takes the job. Five years pass. Mia is a star. Sebastian has a nightclub. They are no longer together.
That is the bare bones of the story, but La La Land is so much more than that. For one thing, it is a musical. I am not a big fan of modern musicals. I love the classics; West Side Story, Sound Of Music, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, My Fair Lady, Singing In The Rain and so many more, those fifties and sixties, technicolored extravaganzas, that had characters burst into song for no reason other than it seemed right too. La La Land is that kind of musical. From the opening number, I was hooked.
Unlike some modern musicals penchant for singing every line, La La Land goes the tried and trusted route of songs interspersing with the story. The songs enhance the story, maybe not the dance routines so much, but the energy and commitment of Gosling and Stone make even the musical indulgences a pleasure.
Neither actor is what you would term a ‘singer’, but their ability to carry a tune is more than adequate in the film, both singing – and dancing – their parts happily as if veteran stage performers. They also really work as a screen couple, which I feel is down to Stone’s innate, doe-eyed, femininity.
Even though it was the strong character of Olive in Easy A that brought Emma Stone to worldwide attention, as an actor, she has not felt the need, it seems, to take on feminist icon roles, her roles to date being a mixture of lead and supporting lead parts. Gosling does Gosling. That is not a criticism. In this film, as the jazz classics obsessed Sebastian, it absolutely works. His cool detachment and suppressed emotion, contrast with his total passion for the music, the connection, that is jazz. You believe that he lives for the music.
The film is also a bit of an LA travelogue, making the watcher yearn to visit LA. Colours are crisp and bright, city visages, clear and inviting. The greatest compliment I can pay this film is that I am not sure I can ever visit Los Angeles. To find out that it is not actually like Chazelle’s La La Land would be a massive disappointment. You may never go to Los Angeles but you should definitely go see La La Land. Beautiful.