I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t destined to adore this film regardless of its execution and reception. From the minute I saw the first trailer for La La Land, I knew I was going to be completely besotted. Any long time reader of this site will know that, for want of a better phrase, I am a bastard for a musical, from the classics like West Side Story and The Sound Of Music to the guilty pleasures like Grease 2 and High School Musical. The one thing I prayed as I entered the theatre was that, after the whirlwind of praise and awards that the picture has already received, I didn’t create expectations in my mind so high that they could never realistically be reached.
In short, I should never have worried. Quite simply, La La Land has made me fall in love with movies all over again. Set in Los Angeles, the film tells the year long story of a blossoming romance between Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress and Seb (Ryan Gosling), a talented but struggling jazz pianist, whose paths cross amidst the world of Hollywood movie making and downtown music clubs. In terms of a bittersweet love story narrative and old fashioned tap dancing choreography, La La Land offers nothing particularly new or groundbreaking, but when something is done so brilliantly, executed so perfectly, it can feel like the most refreshing and innovative thing in the entire world, and this is exactly the kind of feeling that the film evokes. From the very first song in the opening set piece, I knew I was in for something special, and over the course of two hours the picture takes you on a beautiful, whimsical, at times heartbreaking journey that provides exactly the kind of cinematic escapism that we are in desperate need of at this time. Mia, a clearly talented actress who can’t catch a break, invites the audience to indulge in their love of musical theatre with clear, crisp musical numbers, whilst Seb, a man dedicated to saving the lost art of traditional jazz, manages to teach us about the intricacies of the complicated music whilst delivering songs that are catchy, haunting and simplistic in the very best ways. Together, the two characters weave a tale of love and loss that feels completely universal whether you are male, female, gay, straight or anything else in between.
I don’t tend to use the word spellbinding too much, but there really is no other adjective that seems apt to describe the effect that La La Land has on its viewers. Though musicals like Grease, Cabaret, Hairspray etc., arguably contain more memorable, in your face, stand out numbers, the unique beauty of the film is that although you may not necessarily want pick out a single favourite on the track list, the entire picture sprinkles fairy dust over you and pulls you in for 120 minutes of completely hypnotic cinematic joy. I found myself utterly enthralled and invested in the fortunes of Mia and Seb, my heart simultaneously aching and bursting at the beauty of the story telling, the beauty of the music and the power of anticipation that the film makers created for the conclusion of the narrative.
In terms of casting, the filmmakers could not have got it more spot on. In Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, La La Land boasts two leads who are arguably at the very top of their game, both serious triple threats with enough charisma to charm even the most cynical of viewers. As Mia, Stone typifies the spirit of a struggling actress and part time barista, filled with that eternal hope of a big break but also nuanced enough to break our hearts with every cold rejection. As Seb, Gosling gives probably my favourite performance of his career, carrying himself with a delicate swagger that is irresistible to the movie camera. There is no doubt that the musical numbers could have been sung with more precision and gusto by other, more outlandish singing performers, but to have replaced these two would have been to sacrifice the heart and charm of the film. Though clearly immensely talented, the delightful rough edges of both Stone and Gosling’s performances are what make them so human and endearing to the audience, I absolutely cannot imagine any other actors in the roles.
Overall, in presenting such a pure, unashamed version of the original musical game, La La Land has succeeded in completely changing it. Does that make sense? Not for a long time have I felt magic emanating from the screen, and as the minutes went by, as my heart grew bigger and my smile grew wider, I was hit with the realisation that I didn’t want it to end, ever. I defy anybody not to fall head over heals in love with this movie. I know there are still some excellent pictures to come this awards season, but it’s going to take something absolutely extraordinary to knock this off the top of my list for the year.