The anticipation for this film was evident by the Odeon Leicester Square being full first thing in the morning for this encore screening. London Film Festival director Clare Stewart welcomed us to Saturday morning’s screening of La La Land by saying it would be the best 10:30 a.m. ticket we’d ever bought. I’d read all the buzz about this film, its recent wins at both the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals and I admit, I was worried it may not be as good as everyone had said. I needn’t have worried though – Claire was absolutely right too!
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, responsible for 2014’s excellent Whiplash, it is a truly magical film experience. What’s it about? It’s the story of a passionate jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) whose paths cross as they struggle to achieve their dreams in the City of Angels. After the initial spark between them, we watch over the course of four seasons (which all ironically look the same in sunny LA) as they fall in love, but also have to realise that not everything in life is as it is in the movies.
There is so much to love about La La Land. Damien Chazelle has created something that is both old-fashioned and contemporary all at once. It immediately makes you think of the era of Hollywood classics, such as those starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, as Mia and Seb sing, dance and in Gosling’s case, play across the screen and the audience’s hearts (and the fact the actors have made such an effort to do all of this themselves adds to the film’s overall quality). As well as the golden era of Hollywood glamour and style (it looks visually beautiful), the film also captures the modern craziness of LA, particularly through the crushingly awkward auditions Mia puts herself through and the shallow people she encounters in the world she so wants to be a part of.
Another strength is the work of cinematographer Linus Sandgren, whose gorgeous lighting of scenes adds a magical mood and style that illuminates the screen and drenches it in colour. The scene in which Stone and Gosling dance together, overlooking the LA skyline is a brilliant example of this, as well as the merging of old and new, as the spellbinding classic mood is broken by a very modern ringing phone! He has clearly worked closely with Chazelle to capture the essence of the story and together they ensure that you never know when we will shift from reality to the gorgeous fantasy-style dream sequences.
The music is also a high point of La La Land, although I wouldn’t class this as a musical as such. It’s a romance in which the leads occasionally sing. Justin Hurwitz’s score is spot-on, working wonderfully with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. There is also input from John Legend, who also has a small role in the film, lending another level of credibility to its musical side, as does Gosling’s evident work at mastering the piano, in order to truly convince in the role of Seb. I will certainly be buying the full soundtrack as soon as it’s available.
Acting-wise there are strong performances in both lead and minor roles (I loved the all too brief appearance of Whiplash’s JK Simmons!), but the film belongs to Stone and Gosling, who reignite the old-fashioned Hollywood romance for a new generation. They are a superb duo, equally adept at bringing the fun, comedic and emotional aspects of their characters to life. I loved Mia’s sense of humour (particularly early on) and her kind heart, which Stone conveys so seemingly effortlessly through her eyes. I also admit to falling under Gosling’s spell as Seb. He brings a true depth of emotion to him, while also looking utterly cool and sophisticated in every outfit (full marks to the costume designer, for creating looks that were modern, but also classically stylish).
In the Q&A afterwards, Chazelle said that it is a film about timing; sometimes the timing is on and sometimes it isn’t, which is certainly true for Mia and Seb, but also for all of us in life. He hoped that it conveys to the audience that life may not always be as you dreamt, or as it was in your favourite movies, but that that’s okay; we all find our own path. It’s a lovely message and by the end of La La Land you feel that sense of hope.
This has already been an impressive film festival for me. I’ve seen more films than past years (reviews will continue to be posted here as quickly as I can write them), but La La Land will almost certainly be my highlight and possibly even one of my all-time favourite films. I laughed and cried and fell under its spell and I hope its success will signal a new era of films which draw on the magic of a bygone era, to bring a new audience to this genre of film. I’m not quite ready to put money on the Awards season, but if I had to, I think this film is a strong contender.
La La Land opens in the UK on 13th January 2017 (it’s 9th December 2016 for the U.S.A, you lucky people) and I cannot urge you enough to go along and be swept away by it. In the meatime, here’s the latest trailer: https://youtu.be/VDMf9m7FXd4