There’s nothing Hollywood loves more than itself. You only have to look at a cross section of its output to see the narcissistic self-love of its denizens who relish the theatricality of self-referential homages. And yes, that previous sentence was deliberately as pretentious as most of Hollywood’s films try to be. But, something can be showy and familiar and even a little hackneyed, and still be utterly enjoyable. This is La La Land; a tale as old as the movies but beautifully retold, and after all, in a musical it’s the way it’s told that matters most of all.
After a grim year socially, politically and culturally, audiences are hungry for some escapism, some colour and some glamour. La La Land offers all of the above and more. It’s undoubtedly arrived at the perfect time to appeal to the public consciousness. This can partially explain why La La Land swept the board at the Golden Globes, taking home seven prizes, a record-winning amount. However it’d be unfair to suggest timing is the only reason it has been so well met. La La Land has fantastic direction (by the director of the acclaimed Whiplash) and gorgeous cinematography, with dynamic shots and seamless scene transitions that really immerse the watcher in the narrative. The world of the film is not quite our dreary reality, but a romanticised version of it that is very influenced by the films of old Hollywood and the French Nouvelle Vague movement, from Singing in the Rain and Funny Face to Godard and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The film makes no secret of these homages but proudly declares that we’re entering this kind of vintage dreamland, from the opening number where a traffic jam of queuing commuters get out of their cars and dance and sing about another day of sun. It clearly positions us in the modern world, but seen through a vintage rose-tinted lens, and inviting compare to the musicals of old, whilst marking itself as something quite different.
If it’s rather self-indulgent of Hollywood to make a film that’s a love letter to itself, it makes the resulting musical no less charming. It has a combination of nostalgia and melancholic romanticism that we love in times of trouble; the hope of something better with just enough sadness to make it feel within reach. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a romance movie that is romantic in the true sense of the word; characterised by idealism and a dreamy fantasy of what could be. It works brilliantly.
Stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling must be given sizeable credit for making this work; they have fantastic chemistry that roots the film from becoming too drifty and insubstantial, bringing real heart to the piece. If you find it hard to buy that hopeful actress/barista Mia (Emma Stone) can not only afford a rather nice house share in LA but also run a car on her coffee shop wages, or struggle to believe the handsome and ridiculously talented pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling) would be hard pressed for work, you’re not alone, but by 20 minutes in, I’d stopped caring. It’s undoubtedly frustrating that this is what is classed as ‘struggling’ by Hollywood, but then, La La Land is here to offer the warm glow of escapism; if you wanted to see the grim and gritty reality of being an unemployed artist, look elsewhere. The leads are charmingly genuine enough to make us sympathise with their (extremely mild) plight, with the tiresomely familiar ‘failed audition’ scenes paying off with a stand-out performance from Emma Stone as Mia finally gets a chance to make an impression to casting directors. The film excels at shaping annoying hackneyed tropes into something enjoyably and comfortingly familiar instead.
This film is as much of a love letter to jazz music as to Hollywood itself. The beautiful music adds to the moody, wistful atmosphere, as well as helping to drive the narrative.The recurring piano motif from ‘City of Stars’ will linger with you long after the film has ended. The film uses jazz as a allegory for both the characters’ journey and its own existence; recognising how a form/person must adapt and change to remain current and alive, whilst harbouring a great nostalgia for the past.
If you’re looking for some emotional escapism, La La Land is a must-watch. It has cracks beneath the surface, but like Hollywood, it doesn’t encourage you to look too deep. This film is both a tribute to and fuel for the optimistic artists, those fools who dream; like Hollywood it doesn’t give us the hard truth, which we know deep down, but the beautiful version we go to the movies to seek.
Words: Heidi Teague