There’s a moment early in La La Land where Emma Stone walks past a mural of bygone Hollywood stars: Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton. The paint’s faded after years in the Los Angeles sun, and James Dean barely looks like James Dean anymore. It’s an apt image for a movie which harks back to Old Hollywood’s golden age of sharply-written romances and effervescent musicals; La La Land attempts to reconcile what Hollywood once was and what it now is. The age of the studio and the movie icon is over; celluloid has been replaced by digital projection; stars have been replaced by brands like Lego and Marvel.
Movie-making is a multi-billion dollar business, even in the face of cable TV, videogames and smartphones. But does the world really need Hollywood anymore? Can cinema still feel like magic, or have we become too cynical, too self-aware for the medium to cast the same spell?
In this regard, La La Land, the second film from Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle, is a romance in more than one sense. It’s a classic romance about a couple falling in love – her, a would-be actress Mia (Stone) and a budding jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) – but it’s also about those adolescent dreams of moving to Los Angeles and, out of the sea of other hopefuls, being singled out for stardom. Then it’s a romance about Hollywood before the corporations moved in, when the musical numbers were big and the stars were even bigger.
La La Land is unabashedly sentimental, but in such a heartfelt way that it feels less like mindless nostalgia and more like a call to arms: if Hollywood can rediscover its passion, the movie seems to say, then maybe the magic will follow.
Chazelle’s use of jazz music isn’t just a recurring motif carried over from the drumming romance-drama-horror of Whiplash. In La La Land, jazz is used as a metaphor for the Hollywood musical: a once popular genre that has fallen out of mainstream favour. But as Chazelle demonstrates, the old-school musical can still carry resonance if it’s written and made with creativity and conviction. Like an accomplished musician, Chazelle takes familiar riffs and serves them up in a way that feels personal and new.
Stone and Gosling, in their third film together, make a natural screen couple in the classic sense. They may not be the best singers in Tinseltown, but they can hold a tune and the frisson between them feels genuine, whether they’re dancing on a moonlit LA hilltop or quarrelling over dinner in a cramped apartment. As in Whiplash, Chazelle creates an elastic version of reality that feels heightened and everyday at the same time; La La Land opens on a gridlocked Los Angeles highway, horns blaring and fumes billowing into the ether, which moves seamlessly into a huge song-and-dance sequence which seems to stretch down the tarmac to the horizon.
Mia and Sebastian keep bumping into each other, but it’s hardly love at first sight. Mia’s captivated by Sebastian’s piano playing in a restaurant, but Sebastian’s in a bad mood because he’s just been fired by his boss (JK Simmonds) and storms past her in a huff. The next time the pair meet, Sebastian is playing keyboards in a hideous 80s cover band – a scenario Chazelle mines for some deliciously awkward comedy.
Chazelle constantly finds something truthful in his scenes of falling in love, auditions or playing gigs. Beyond the warm glow of romance, the vulnerability of presenting yourself as an actor or a musician feels honest and raw. When one of Mia’s attempts to break into the film industry falls flat, Stone’s handling of her character’s rejection is perfectly judged. Likewise Gosling, whose style of acting is so loose and natural that, in some movies, it almost feels as though he isn’t doing anything. Here, his character’s longing for success, his passion for music and his boyish optimism are all there to see in his face.
If Whiplash was about the pain and suffering that can come from pushing a creative gift to its extreme, La La Land is a bittersweet tale about the fantasy of success and the difficult reality. Cut to a recurring, waltzing motif written by Justin Hurwitz, it’s a delicate, beguiling delight of a movie. Leave your cynicism at the cinema door; La La Land proves that going to the cinema can still feel like a rapturous experience.
La La Land is out now.