La La Land (2016)
To put this film into perspective, the hype and buzz around La La Land (2016) which I caught last night at The Phoenix in Leicester, we decided to book ahead and eat before we went in to see the film, my first cinema outing of the year. My friends and family have grown towards this independent cinema in recent years because it’s a better atmosphere, different films that you wouldn’t get less than a mile away at the multiplex. Probably the busiest night at The Phoenix and we weren’t the only ones to say that. We had to queue for food, that’s before being told of the 40 minute wait for it to arrive. We had to sit on separate table for a time, yes it was that busy it was grab or share table. I can’t fault the staff, some of whom I know, which took it all their stride and carried on, it was just another night, but it wasn’t, this was next to possible Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) proportions, it was packed in that little two screen cinema that delivered the food just before the film was to begin, assured that we wouldn’t miss the film before the end of the adverts, which shows how confident they are at The Phoenix. In short I was impressed with how this big film on opening night was handled by my local independent. We had our dinner down and only missed a few minutes of adverts before going into a packed screening of one of the most uplifting films in a long time.
We begin in a traffic jam of one our L.A.’s busy highways, nothing unusual there until the camera stops on one of the drivers, whose already singing, the tones being set here in this first number, it’s both light carefree and uplifting, taking us away from the world for if only a 2 hours. The dancers are full of life and the Eastern sunshine, yes I’m comfortable, ready to be taken along for the journey. I also noticed an older couple, not so nimble on their feet, that didn’t stop them from also being part of this random event on the highway. We stay there for one quick scene where we meet aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) memorizing some lines for an audition, lost in her own little world, even as the traffic eases and drivers move on, she’s still there lost in the lines. Before being interrupted by Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who honks his horn, a motif he uses much like an instrument to alert her to his impatient. They meet only briefly from passing cars, it’s too early to say if they have chemistry or they will ever meet again.
I was sold this film as a musical about musicals, and a love letter to the genre I’m not so sure its the former, it does however celebrate the classic spirit of the genre, its light and carefree at times, whilst also very contemporary, one of the few films still shot in Hollywood, supporting their local economy, instead of shipping production to the U.K. with all the tax breaks. In the trailer the image of celebration and what comes images that reference An American in Paris (1951) (which I will get to later), gave me a slightly different impression of the film – that’s trailers for you. I gave up trying to find references to past films, which I was more successful with for The Artist (2011). Here I just sat back and soaked up the film.
Taking it as a love letter to the genre as these two dreamers who over the course of 5 seasons Winter to Winter meet, fall in love and pursue their dreams. They want to live the Hollywood dream. Jazz pianist Sebastian passion for the music blinds him to staying in a job for more than a few nights. A night at a bar where he was previously fired, has to stick to a set list of Christmas numbers before the need to go freestyle on the ivories compels him to let rip before he’s given the boot. Whilst Mia the barista aspiring actress has just been to the latest in a string of clichéd auditions, we’ve seen them all before, all treated with a light touch, as Mia takes them seriously Stone can see the funny side, probably drawing from her own past on the audition circuit. She’s the one we’re supposed to identify with, the dreamer, who takes every opportunity to get a step closer to living the Hollywood dream. She knows her world inside out, even pointing out the window from Casablanca (1942)
Whilst Sebastian has the drive, the passion but can’t get close to his dream because he has let go of what is important to support himself to get to fulfilling the dream. As his old friend Keith (John Legend) reminds him that he’s living in the past whilst he needs to look to the future. There’s a re-opened bar as a Samba-Tapas, not one or the other, a combination which offends the traditionalist Sebastian who knows Jazz like the back of his hand, he breathes the music, if only he could be supported by it
It’s not your standard boy meets girl in a musical, it’s by chance and handled with a light touch, Mia starts the ball rolling in Spring when we meet them again before their first number together. Both are not naturals to the all dancing singing routines but seem to have really taken to it well. They are no Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers who had a dynamic which can’t easily be replicated. Instead we have a youthful energy which collides with sexual energy exerted through innocent dance. La La Land doesn’t claim or aspire to be a classic MGM musical filmed on the back-lot. It’s more natural – as a musical can be, breaking out into a number. The two leads have a natural screen chemistry that allows us to move through Summer and Autumn with noticing the seasons have changed.
Reality hits them late on, as Sebastian is finding success, the principled Gene Kelly type who take an opportunity at the cost of his dreams, to be loved and adored is easier to come by. Whilst Mia is putting it all on the line to make her dreams a reality. Both dreamers in their own ways, both escapists, only one a realist when it matters. Leading me back to the only real homage that is to An American in Paris, I noticed weeks ago the minimalist design and the Parisian references, it could only mean they have reworked the ballet sequence, a 13 minute scene that melts time to a halt as you are taken into this romanticised world of the studio where dreams are created. We are told in a near dialogue free sequence what happened after the love affair, how we have reached this conclusion.
I can’t finish this review without touching on the music, some of which is throwaway, whilst other numbers have stayed with me. I guess repeat viewings and a growing love for the film, I will be buying a few tracks to listen at leisure. I also have to mention the sometimes jarring cinematography that sees the camera panning that blurs to the extreme until we stop at either Mia or Sebastian, It’s a style which when sitting at the front of the screen is too much, it can be forgiven slightly as I understand the intention of sweeping past/through the crowd. A small negative among a heap of positives that leave you feeling light and care-free.