Thursday, 12 January 2017

La La Land

A jazz pianist falls for an inspiring actress in Los Angeles.

There was a moment back in the 1970s when the image of people bursting into song and dancing in the middle of a motion picture wasn't simply cheesy, it had come to be seen as downright strange. But not anymore. Our era is immersed in a retro musical culture. Damien Chazelle wants to make a musical that celebrates the classic Hollywood vision of love as a spiritual perfection. This is is really quite beautiful and as another Oscar season begins, this time under a dark cloud of controversy, movies like this one take their natural place: escapist wonderment that reminds audiences and cinephiles like me why they bother staring at flickering images on a wall in the first place. 

The heart and soul of this movie are rooted in the past and so are its characters. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling is a romantic that almost feels chemically balanced to perfection. These two belong together because of Gosling, his malice dipped in honey, and Stone, her vivacity and pensive awareness; creating a teasing romantic connection. But mostly they belong together because... they dance like this. They are the new Gene Kelly and Shirley McLaine. 

Their not-so-"meet cute" takes place on the freeway. Indeed, the film opens with one of the most extraordinary sequences in years: a musical number, set in the morning commuting and traffic jam along with a vast stretch of L.A. freeway. The camera hurls with astonishing choreography intricacy among the passengers on their way to work. Cinematically the sequence makes the impossible look easy. It also serves as a setting for optimism and emotional expectations. By staging this number Chazelle invites us to return and stay inside an enchanted romantic universe. In my opinion, Damien Chazelle's La La Land is the most audacious big-screen musical in a long time. An irony of ironies, that is because it is the also the most traditional one. 

Director pays an awe-inspiring homage to the look, mood and stylised trappings of the Hollywood musicals of the 40's especially, the 50's with starry nights and streets lamps lighting up the innocence of soft-shoe romance and two people who were meant for each other literally dancing on air. The "stroll" scene is one of my favourites as Damien Chazelle stages a gorgeous scene over a view of L.A.'s glittering carpet of lights that merges into pastel twilight. They sit, talk and start dancing, just like actors did on sets in the 1950s. Sooner, she lays her eyes on...him. Across a crowded room. A stranger playing the piano. Except that the look on her face tells you that he is no stranger at all. She is not just starring - she is falling. That is the sublimity of Old Hollywood where we believed that it could happen, just like that. 

Maybe only French cinephiles of a certain age will realise that the writer director's true inspiration here is not as much from vintage Hollywood musicals as from the late French director Jacques Demy's two landmark 1960s musicals with Michel Legrand, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort - especially the latter which was far more dance and jazz oriented. What I love about Damien Chazelle's movies is that he incorporates music in his movies, he did that with Whiplash and he does that more than ever here. The music becomes a character among all other characters. Moreover, L.A. has rarely looked this gorgeous in films, a credit to the director's romantic imagination as well as to the technical expertise of Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle)

Finally, La La Land is the story of old-school dreamers trapped in a world of entertainment commerce that is designed to crush the life out of you. It is a reminder that the often self-destructive act of dreaming is the very elixir of life. This film is a love story to passionate people, people who have a dream, people who want to succeed in doing what they love. Someone who is going to, no matter what anyone says, go ahead. This film grabs the shoulders of anyone who is passionate out there, shaking them until they get out there and follow their dreams.

Overall, La La Land is an unapologetically romantic tribute to classic movie musicals, splashing dream - chasing optimism everywhere. I was utterly absorbed by the film's simple storytelling and the terrific lead performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling who are both excellent, particularly Emma Stone, who has never been better. They both carry Chazelle's musical numbers off with delicacy and charm.

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