Review: “La La Land”

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One of cinema’s greatest losses is that of the musical. The genre is still around, but usually in the guise of an animation or family film, with its popularity among adults a far cry from its heyday in the Forties and Fifties. For years, an audience for a live-action, contemporary musical has been sorely lacking – until now.

Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) are two aspiring artists living in Los Angeles. The former works part-time at a coffee shop at Warner Bros. Studios, with dreams of being an actress; the latter is a gifted jazz musician who aspires to own his own club. Both are struggling to make ends meet, but they live each day with the certainty that, at some point, they will make it big in Hollywood.

As if by fate, Mia and Sebastian continually encounter each other during their separate adventures through L.A. The two speak coldly initially, but their relationship warms as time wears on, and before long they are dating. Spending time together brings out a newfound confidence in both individuals: Mia becomes a playwright with her own one-woman show, while Sebastian joins a new-age jazz group with old acquaintance Keith (John Legend).

From the opening number, in which a crowd of motorists tap-dance across a traffic-jammed freeway, La La Land knows exactly what it is – a cheery, cheesy affair, and that’s far from a bad thing. Many of the musicals of old utilised the exact same formula, with fully-grown adults singing and shuffling their way through everyday life. Having this tone in a 21st Century picture is a welcome change from its overly sincere contemporaries.

To pen the soundtrack, director Damien Chazelle hired Justin Hurwitz, who previously worked on the last feature directed by Chazelle, Whiplash. When compared to other musicals, Hurwitz’s songs feel mellow, neither being catchy nor particularly memorable. Even so, the songs aren’t bad and are quite pleasing to listen to, with performers Gosling and Stone making full use of their hidden vocal talents.

Talking of our two leads, it is such a joy to see Gosling and Stone working together. They are two of this reviewer’s favourite actors, lighting up the screen no matter what project they star in, and in La La Land their performances are no different. Together, they possess an enviable amount of chemistry which other Hollywood couples could only dream of. And if that isn’t enough, they have some pretty smooth dance moves to boot.

What takes away from this enjoyment is the plot, which is brilliant in parts but mediocre elsewhere. On the positive side, the issues it discusses resonate with the viewer, the subtle observations of Hollywood (using jazz as a metaphor) are clever and the ending is remarkably mature; yet many of its moments are predictable, and its lack of conflict for much of the film sadly makes it less investing.

La La Land is an admirable effort at bringing back the adult-oriented musical, one which doesn’t improve upon the genre but is more than willing to embrace it. The winning combo of Gosling and Stone helps make the picture more enjoyable, adding to its bright and breezy nature.

3.5 stars

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