Going into a film that has just been nominated for a record equalling 14 academy awards sets up a certain expectation. But, along with a huge amount of positive hype there have been some opposers to La La Land, including stories of whole groups walking out of screenings.
Well, even as the strains to the spectacular opening number died away I was pretty sure what side I would fall on. The film sets its stall here as we enter Los Angeles into that most LA of things, a vast freeway traffic jam with a cacophony of car horns, engines and myriad radio stations before it coalesces into a spectacular song and dance number, including a jazz band in the back of a truck.
This serves the purpose of showing us that, while this looks like the real world, we are in the same kind of fantasy land that gave us the likes of Singin’ In The Rain and other classic ‘golden era’ Hollywood musicals, and so it goes from there.
The story at first looks like some thing fairly well trodden and hackneyed as we meet Emma Stone’s aspiring actress/current barista Mia and Ryan Gosling’s down at heel jazz pianist Sebastian, with a nice Pulp Fiction-esque bit of cinematic trickery.
The pair of course meet and, through a few cracking song and dance numbers, become romantically involved and it looks like we are heading for the happily ever after.
Where the film really wins in this regard though is that at any moment that it seems it’s all going to go ‘a bit too hollywood’ and saccharine it subverts expectations just enough but without derailing its overall upbeat feel.
Of course without the music a musical would be somewhat lost and what La La Land does is ingenious. It bases its musical ventures largely around Sebastian’s love of jazz leading to numbers that are great for spontaneous fantasy dancing, alongside more diegetic moments that help the balance of fantasy and reality.
Despite this the singing and dancing, while well handled, isn’t the film’s highlight. Though both Stone and Gosling acquit themselves fairly well, particularly during emir courtship dance in the Hollywood Hills, it’s fair to say neither are Gene Kelly or Debbie Reynolds level – though it knows this enough to acknowledge its historical references.
Throughout it feels that the most accomplished dancer in La La Land is the camera as it glides and swoops through lengthy shots and takes both during the musical numbers and otherwise, finding a good balance between over showy camera work and giving the actors a chance to, well, act (often a rarity in mainstream films).
With a story about the downtrodden seeking success and fame in the entertainment industry La La Land is a movie custom-made for Hollywood to love and its classic representation of the American dream, with a slight twist, is refreshing in a world where that dream feels increasingly like it’s been hijacked for nefarious purposes.
It also manages to attain a feeling of joy I don’t remember seeing in a cinema in this way in a long time and does so in a way that feels like it has some real heart, as well as a point to make about artistic compromise and integrity, all while being startlingly uncynical without a bad bone in its body, making for a wonderful two hours of much-needed escapism.