Sunday, 29 January 2017

"I guess I'll see you in the movies."

Pure unadulterated joy is in short supply these days, both on the big screen and off. Which makes Damien Chazelle's irresistible La La Land all the more cherishable. More than just a glorious throwback to the great MGM musicals, it is a funny Valentine to the entire history of the genre, as light on its feet as Fred Astaire, as big in its heart as Judy Garland. Just as Chazelle's Whiplash (2014) was intense, La La Land, especially in its first half, is footloose and fancy free, buoyed by a clutch of great new songs and carried by the chemistry of a career best Emma Stone (The Help) and Ryan Gosling (Drive).

The movie gets a lot of flavour from its twisted heritage. A US indie makeover of a French New Wave take on a classic American genre, part New York, New York (1977), part The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964), part Singin' In The Rain (1952). A bigger budgeted upgrade on Chazelle's musical short Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench (2009), the story – aspiring actress Mia (Stone) meets frustrated jazz pianist Seb (Gosling), and sparks fly until career aspirations get in the way – is simplicity itself, enlivened by some Tarantinoesque narrative tricks. The film's unpredictable genius is present in its opening sequence. On paper, the idea of an LA freeway traffic jam bursting out into song and dance sounds insufferable, as a solitary singer snowballs into the world's best flash mob perfectly captured by Chazelle's sinuous camera work, it is a pirouetting riot of colour and euphoria. Subsequently Chazelle fully embraces the corny, but for all the film's love of retro, it is certainly not dusty. Chazelle's staging and wit make the vintage feel new.

With its vivid lensing, colour coded costumes and striking production design that glides from enhanced naturalism to Technicolor soundstage spectacle, La La Land brims with such indelible moments. Like his protagonists, Chazelle shoots for the stars, at one point even allowing Mia and Seb to shake off gravity as they visit Griffith Observatory so they can dance amid dazzling constellations.

Much of this bright, shiny quality is also down to its leads. Following pairings in Crazy Stupid Love (2011) and Gangster Squad (2013), Stone and Gosling have chemistry and charisma to spare. It would be easy to diminish Mia as simply a lively, quick witted type, but Stone spools through many colours, from luminous to spirited to distraught – her wistful rendition of ballad Audition (The Fools Who Dream) and a soul baring audition to match Naomi Watts' unforgettable showcase in Mulholland Drive (2001).

No lesser talents than Francis Ford Coppola (One From the Heart) and Scorsese (New York, New York) have been here before, freighting Golden Era-style musicals with anguish, resentment and failure. But for all their joys (and sorrows), those films didn't have Justin Hurwitz's numbers, by turns buoyant, bombastic, flirtatious, nostalgic and mournful.

If Stone is the film's heart, Gosling is the sardonic soul, caught between art and commerce, as moody as the genre will allow. Both Stone and Gosling can carry a tune with any splinters in their voices only adding to the ardour and fragility. They also dance beautifully, making up in style and elegance what their choreographed routines lack in complexity.

Like Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You (1996), this is a musical about feeling, not finish, and a magic hour soft-shoe shuffle backdropped by the glimmering lights of LA is impossibly romantic.

La La Land does feel somewhat drawn out in places and, embroiled in the bittersweet drama of Seb and Mia's relationship, almost forgets to be a musical during the final third. But this doesn't detract from the film's mighty charms. A film about love made with love, it is hard to imagine any 2017 movie will leave you on a higher high.

Audacious, retro, joyous and heartbreaking, personal and universal, La La Land is the latest great musical for people who don't like musicals – and will slap a mile wide smile across the most miserable of faces.

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