If you told me last year that Ryan Gosling would be playing the romantic lead in a musical, I’d probably have called for the men in the white coats to take you away.
On second thoughts, though, this actor has been nothing if not diverse in his career thus far. Why not a song-and-dance man to boot? He even plays the piano and makes a fine job of it too. (I only detected a small bit of trick photography helping him along).
It’s an entrancing film that brings us back to the ‘big sound’ musicals of the forties. Gosling’s leading lady is Emma Stone. She stumps up brilliantly, singing like an angel. She has music in her feet as well. In the dancing scenes I felt she was like one of those mentors putting Ryan through his paces on Strictly. She looked much more assured than he, though he does have that Gene Kelly ability to glide.
The film kicks off – literally – with some street dancing that’s right up there with West Side Story. This is in a pre-credit sequence. At this stage we have no idea what to expect from La La Land: no characters have been established. When they are, the quirky direction of Damien Chazelle throws some staccato set-pieces at us before settling down to tell the story of the romance between the two leads.
Stone is Mia, a struggling LA actress-cum-playwright. Gosling plays Sebastian, a man who loves jazz played ‘the old way’. He has a dream of opening his own club but to make ends meet he has to take a job in a band that dumbs down his talent. Both of them long for success on their terms but are handcuffed by their esoteric talents: market forces rule OK.
The film – structured according to the seasons – is entrancing in its spell and scope. People break into song at the drop of a hat. Reality blends with illusion, with mime, with moody silhouette. We’re back in the era of Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Cyd Charisse.
Well, almost. Chazelle is only 80% retrospective. The other 20% is revisionist. This gives a slightly clunky feel to the film. It looks over its shoulder at what it’s doing. I was reminded of the way Woody Allen approaches nostalgia, i.e. with wilful contrivance.
For some this will diminish it. For others – who may be too young to enjoy the inset references to vintage movies like Casablanca and Rebel Without a Cause – it will enhance it.
Either way it’s a superb soufflé. I’m sure you’ll find yourself humming some of the (very catchy) lyrics as you leave the cinema. I can’t wait to get the CD.
Gosling and Stone, together for the third time, play off each other with empathetic chemistry right up to the last moment. I’ll wager this will bring a tear to your eye.
A definite Oscar contender on any number of scores.