This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, December 25th 2016
4 stars, Rated M, 128 mins
People are going gaga for La La Land, and probably the nicest thing about this fact is that it shows that contemporary audiences once again have an appetite for musicals. Huh? That’s right – it’s important you know there are song and dance routines, because that’s not for everyone, but if anyone is going to convert your long-held prejudices, it’s Damien “Whiplash” Chazelle. And if you’re already sold, just jump on board.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are shaping up to be today’s equivalent of Garland and Rooney, this third outing (after Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad) demonstrating yet again their chemistry and endearing camaraderie. Sebastian is a jazz pianist struggling to turn a dream into reality; Mia is an aspiring actress who serves coffee to actual actresses at one of Hollywood’s major studios. Just as in the MGM musicals of yore, they meet-cute (tick), their initial animosity gradually translates into affection (tick) and they unselfconsciously segue into naturalistic singing and well-rehearsed dancing which is guaranteed to bring a smile to every audience member’s face. The allusions to Singin’ in the Rain are fun to spot, but La La Land’s real charm is in the fact these actors are not indentured musical monkeys from an era 60 years ago, but tangibly real people who give the impression of just being themselves.
Given the eviscerating script and harsh lessons of Whiplash (one of the instant classics of 2014), Chazelle may seem a strange choice to helm a modern-day, feel-good musical. However, the director’s love of jazz is front and centre, and once again his actors stepped up to the “I’ll do this myself” plate, with Gosling playing his own piano numbers, Stone’s breathy voice bringing a naturalistic charm, and the pair doing a damn fine job of mimicking the moves of Reynolds and Kelly in one delightful night-time scene.
As a depiction of Hollywood, the observations are bang-on (the distracted casting directors, the audition waiting room full of clones) but Chazelle masks most of the unpleasant aspects with gorgeous primary-colour-blocked costumes and catchy tunes you’ve never heard before. From the one-shot opening scene in which an unlikely joyous traffic jam turns into a dance routine complete with modern-day touches of parkour and BMXers, through to Stone’s wonderfully powerful closing number, La La Land takes us back to a time when we’d watch movies just to say “now that’s entertainment”.