We need to talk about Damien Chazelle. At 31-years of age (only two-years older than me, rather depressingly) the young director has quickly cemented himself as one of the most exciting and extraordinary talents working in cinema today. Whiplash, the 2015 jazz-infused drama that put Chazelle on the map, proved him a master craftsman. That film, full of intensity and wit, quickly became not just my favourite film of that year, but my favourite film of recent years. And now Chazelle has returned with a follow-up worthy of equal claims; a joyous, all-singing, all-dancing musical that has one foot firmly planted in the past the other in the modern-day.
A shoo-in for best picture at this year’s Oscars, La La Land is a technicolored triumph that makes no secret of its homage to the musicals from Hollywood’s golden age. Chazelle’s previous efforts may have proven his skill as a writer and director, but this establishes him as erudite in his cineliteracy. From the painted backdrops to the instrumental montages, from the lighting to the costumes and choreographed dance sequences, the way in which he shoots the picture lends itself so much to the musicals of the 1940’s and 50’s that it feels as if it has been plucked straight from that era; sitting quite nicely, both tonally and visually, with the likes of Singin’ in the Rain (one of my all-time favourites) and A Star Is Born.
But what is so impressive about Damien Chazelle’s direction, and an integral part of the film’s brilliance, is the way he manages to update and resurrect the musical for a modern audience who might consider the genre nothing more than a cinematic relic. From the opening frame that squeezes the CinemaScope logo into the 1.33 aspect ratio of old, only to expand it to the current 2.39:1, the director uses a number of different tricks to update the musical.
The opening number, Another Day of Sun, takes place on the mundane location of a traffic clogged freeway as passengers escape their cars to dance and jump over them; A Lovely Night, one of the soundtrack’s highlights and best parts of the movie, is interrupted by the familiar ringtone of a mobile phone that most people have permanently attached to their hands (even in cinemas); and perhaps the biggest instance of the old and new crashing together to appeal to both the old and new audiences, is the way in which Ryan Gosling’s jazz-obsessed pianist joins a band in which his music is fused with modern pop music. The past and present are constantly battling one another. which makes La La Land feel altogether retro and fresh, nostalgic and current.
Then you have Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, two of the biggest and most popular stars working in film today, who embody the spirit of the actors from the musical era. Gosling’s performance sits somewhere between the rebellious edge of James Dean and the button-downed charisma of Gene Kelly, whilst Stone channels the charm and innocence of the likes of the recently departed Debbie Reynolds and the great Judy Garland.
They play Sebastian and Mia, a pianist with hopes of opening his own jazz club and an aspiring actress who is struggling to set herself apart from the crowd of other coffee shop-working waitresses/actresses. Through a series of fateful circumstances, the two find each other and quickly fall in love before embarking on a relationship that flourishes and struggles with the pressures of achieving their dreams in L.A.
It’s the Hollywood setting that draws comparisons to the aforementioned Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born, and which plants La La Land firmly in the camp of films that are about films. Chazelle’s masterwork is an unashamed tribute, a gushing love letter, to the art that is movie-making and to all of the brave souls who strive to enter that world. It is a film about dreamers, made for dreamers; a theme that is brought to the forefront during Stone’s raw performance of one of the film’s final numbers, a song untitled Audition (The Fools Who Dream).
As a bit of a dreamer myself (isn’t that what cinema is all about after all?) it’s no wonder then that I fell completely head-over-heels in love with La La Land. Damien Chazelle, a outstanding director with one hell of a promising career ahead of him, has made a piece of cinema that I’m sure will be considered a classic in future years to come – and rightly so.
The wonderful music – Chazelle reunites with his longtime collaborator, Justin Hurwitz – the costume design and the performances combine to make for a sweeping, swooning romance that has all the bittersweet longing of Casablanca. To even be mentioned in the same sentence as such a heavyweight is a comment to the film’s stature, which, with the luxury of time, will only continue to grow. Believe the hype. You will fall in love and you will be left whistling City of Stars for days afterwards.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com