Tuesday, 11 October 2016

LFF 2016: La La Land

Watching Damien Chazelle's La La Land in 2016 - a year which, both inside and outside the cinema, has been caked in some of the most feculent matter to spurt from the world's rancid arsehole - is like being slapped in the face with a bright yellow cartoon hand that bursts into stars on impact with your chops, showering you with music and joy and laughter and love and all the things that have so singularly failed to represent this year. It's no wonder that it isn't released in the UK until next January; 2016 simply doesn't deserve it.

Thanks to the London Film Festival though, a handful of jammy bastards (hello) got to experience it early, and an experience is exactly what it is. La La Land is not so much a film as a celebration: a vital and jubilant reminder that beautiful, colourful, widescreen magic still exists, and a declaration from its ambitious, talented and irritatingly young director that he absolutely did not come to dick about. This is the full package, the real deal; oozing with talent and crammed to the edge of every frame with heart-bursting wonderment.

So first things first: La La Land is a musical. If you don't like musicals, you probably won't like La La Land (also, the fuck is wrong with you?). It's a nostalgic, traditional, delightful musical in which Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play Sebastian and Mia, two charming dream-chasers who sing upbeat songs about love and togetherness. But it's also a forward-looking, modern, achingly sad musical in which Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play Sebastian and Mia, two occasionally shitty people who sing wistful songs about failure and regret. It's both comfortably predictable and refreshingly unexpected; like the city it's named for, La La Land's dazzling sunshine casts pitch black shadows.

Announcing itself with a stupendous opening number that fizzes with primary colours and fluid camera moves (like most of the songs, it's presented as one long, unimaginably complex shot), La La Land earned its first round of applause at my screening before the title even appeared. Just one display of Chazelle's balls-out confidence occurs towards the end of that number, when someone skateboards off the bonnet of a car: why would anyone in their right mind put something so likely to go wrong at the climax of such a complicated shot? You soon realise, though, that the whole film is full of risks like that. Chazelle's chutzpah is fully justified, and there are two very good reasons why: Stone and Gosling.

With this, the third film in which they have not only starred together but also played lovers, Ry & Em have truly reached peak adorable. These two could play Donald Trump and Theresa May in a romantic comedy right now and the world would fall in love with them. Stone, already a proven comedic performer, employs every muscle in her face - not least those around her enormous, irresistible eyes - to render us submissive to her naturally devastating humour, while Gosling, who somehow rarely gets the chance to unleash his obvious streak of innate comedy, lets rip here. A scene in which his vaguely pretentious jazz pianist is forced to play keytar in an '80s tribute band (complete with outfit that qualifies as a fire hazard) is already inherently funny, but Gosling's humiliated expression lifts the gag into orbit.

For a cynical noughties audience, it takes actors of this calibre to sell something as potentially disastrous as a song-and-dance routine. But sell it they do: they're no Fred and Ginger (Gosling in particular is occasionally less than light on his feet), but they throw themselves into each number with spirit, Chazelle's inventive direction and Linus Sandgren's sensational cinematography helping to conceal any missteps. And in celebrating the movies (Stone's aspiring actress / writer works as a barista on the Warner Bros lot), the set-pieces recall the likes of Top Hat, Singin' In The Rain and The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg with just the right amount of deference.

Despite all the joy-soaked fantasy on offer, La La Land - like Chazelle's Whiplash before it - smuggles a dark and unexpectedly realistic message about the true cost of success (albeit a far more relatable one than in Whiplash), and the film's final act skulks out from beneath the glossy veneer of its preceding ninety minutes with subversive intent, even as it unleashes a breathless, wordless and peerless finale. Chazelle makes some bold choices that might not go down well with everyone, but they breathe fresh air into what could have been a classily-executed but one-note ode to the golden age of musicals.

Of course if you're a terrible nitpicker you might find yourself lamenting the cursory appearance of a handful of first-act characters: Sebastian's sister pops up for a single expository scene and is summarily forgotten; Mia's housemates get one song before suffering a similar fate; JK Simmons is cruelly teased in a hilarious but all-too-brief cameo. But if those guys are sacrificed then it's on the altar of the film's incandescent leads, and given that they're probably the two people with whom most of us would want to be trapped on a desert island, the absence of a few minor characters is hardly felt. It's almost as if La La Land has nothing else wrong with it whatsoever.

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