Every year films float into the academy’s eye by flaunting their gimmicks like peacock plumage. Last year it was Leo getting cold, before that there was Boyhood’s long road and Birdman’s faux single shot. Academy board members fell over themselves to congratulate them because each year needs a new film that brings something different to the table, it’s clear that the Academy loves a good gimmick. But only a little bit.
La La Land’s gimmick is that it’s a musical. The simple fact that being a musical is a gimmick in 2016 is a saddening thing for many people, most of all for director Damien Chazelle, who came from a musical background. The film follows the career and relationship of Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actor working as a barista and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist aiming to open his own jazz club. There is not much to talk about in terms of plot. The film proceeds as expected up until a point, it is in the musical refrains that the true meat of the film is found. They serve to sweeten each character moment and keep the viewer smirking up at the big screen.
The film is an assault on the senses in all the right ways. its use of not only sound, but colour is astounding. Every frame is filled with saturated lighting and colourful scenery. Characters dress as if they were professionally dressed for the stage in bold pastels. It’s all so on the nose, subtlety is thrown out the window for the service of the film and it almost always works.
La La Land is a throwback to the cinema of the fifties and to the musicals of old, to the studio system and to a genre of films that have been in danger of extinction for the longest time. Whether the film will cause a resurgence of musicals is yet to be seen, but it’s a clear coda of the film that the beautiful should not be left to die. The musical movie genre requires people who are passionate, people who mourn the impending loss, to fight for it. The film finds a brilliant mirror for this in the form of jazz, with Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian, a struggling jazz pianist fighting to keep people interested in something that they don’t want to like. It’s hard not to see the parallels with Gosling and Chazelle here, with Chazelle taking La La Land from production company to production company since 2010, fighting against enforced changes to the characters to better suit audiences. It took the success of Whiplash to allow Chazelle the creative freedom to make the film he had always wanted without impediments. And the final product justifies his patience.
With 14 nominations at the Oscars La La Land is tied as the most nominated film in Academy history. It is not unlikely that there will be more than a couple of wins in that 14. While Gosling’s performance is more in line with what you can expect from him and his singing less impressive, Stone must be a hot favourite to take home best actress after displaying a performance of the level she has been hinting at for years. Critics have pointed to Mia as a less developed, more passive character or as “little more than a conduit for Sebastian’s feelings,” and whilst this is a valid point the ‘blandness’ of her character serves her purpose in the right ways.
She is the underdog of the story and she grounds the film, whereas Sebastian is larger than life and cocksure, Mia is a blank slate on which Stone places a timid vulnerability and a deep belief that she isn’t good enough. Where Mia purports deep down that she may not actually be a great actress, Sebastian knows he has the talent, he just doesn’t believe he has an audience. Sebastian’s struggle is one of means, he must make the money to fund his dreams, but Mia’s is a more personal journey, a string of failed auditions has demolished her self-worth and she is constantly being told that she is not wanted, Sebastian’s skill meanwhile, is more marketable, he’s just holding out for better. Her struggle is the more relatable to the viewer, Sebastian’s is more relatable to Damien Chazelle.
Chazelle’s love for jazz almost takes centre stage in the film, with Sebastian delivering an impassioned plea for the genre in one memorable scene. Chazelle is two for two for talking about how much he loves Charlie Parker in his films at this point. It’s more than likely that many people will prefer the jazz oriented side of the film to the Hollywood side, and if that is their take away then I’m sure the director will be pleased with himself.
La La Land does face the same trappings that every Hollywood centric award show darling does, in that it must avoid simply praising Hollywood. There is nothing that appeals more to Hollywood types than films about how creative people are heroes. It’s all a bit too masturbatory. The film does attempt to divert this by showing some of the skeevy underbelly of LA but this amounts to nothing more than a few rude casting directors and the odd traffic jam. The dark side is not pronounced enough to criticise the industry, but it is present, and this creates a little unevenness in the tone of the film. Its darkness is not really necessary as the film is on the whole a joyful affair based around a relationship drama.
All in all, the film is a noteworthy achievement that blends the fantastical elements of cinema with a burning desire for the magic of jazz and musical theatre. It’s a rare beast, something that is deeply personal to the filmmaker. The film is so out there that it should not have been funded, and the fact that it is also a box office success is as uplifting as it is surprising.
But it is clearly not a film for everyone, musical fans and cinephiles will be its biggest fans and the romance and star power is strong enough to bring around the slightly weary. Yet, much like Manchester by the Sea, it is not a film for the unsentimental. It’s wishy, it’s washy, it’s affecting, it’s visually stunning.