I was brought up on the Hollywood movie musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. "Singing in the Rain", "South Pacific", "An American in Paris", "High Society", just to name a few – I love them all. They were from an era in Hollywood whose like we shall probably never see again.
Until along comes "La La Land".
This 2016 tribute to the old Hollywood and the era of the musicals has cleaned up bags of awards so far and is tipped to perform well at the upcoming Oscars. We will have to wait and see on that one. It has generally, though not universally, garnered rave reviews from critics and audiences. I saw it yesterday with a group of friends. Our verdict?
I came away from the cinema loving the film. Others of my group were not quite so enthusiastic.
I think this is one of those movies that, viewed as a whole, is better than the sum of its discrete parts. Directed and written by Damien Chazelle, with an excellent, toe-tapping music score by Justin Hurwitz, this is basically a boy-meets-girl story set in Hollywood, where everyone breaks into song-and-dance every now and then.
The storyline is hardly original. Struggling actress Mia (played by Emma Stone) meets struggling jazz musician Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling). Each longs to be successful, but can't quite crack it. They fall in love. Then, they get lucky breaks, their respective careers take off, and fame beckons them both. Their mushrooming careers take them along different paths. Will they get together again? We've seen it all before: "The Jazz Singer", "A Chorus Line", "Sunset Boulevard", "Singing in the Rain", just to name a few – the struggling young artist trying to make it big in Hollywood is a recurrent theme in so many movies.
So, director/writer Chazelle is attempting a tribute to the old Hollywood and the old musicals, using a very time-worn storyline. Somewhat against the odds, I think he brings it off.
I say "against the odds", because some elements in the film don't quite cut the mustard. Stone and Gosling, who play the two lead characters, are both excellent actors and each brings charm and chemistry to the roles of Mia and Sebastian respectively. But their singing – yes, Stone and Gosling sang their own songs in the movie – is barely adequate. Oh for a Marni Nixon (she supplied the singing voices for, among many others, Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn in "The King and I" and "My Fair Lady" respectively). Also, their dancing can be described as no more than serviceable: Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers they ain't. Also, some of the miming is badly done.
Against this, however, are many superb moments. The big production, song-and-dance numbers are memorable, colourful, and delightfully executed. The opening scene of the movie, a major song-and-dance number on an elevated freeway, is absolutely stunning. The audience at the session I attended actually applauded that scene. (And yes, it was filmed on a real-life freeway in LA.) The song-and-dance duet performed by Stone and Gosling at sunset, at a lookout above LA, with the city lights twinkling in the background, is another delightful scene not to be forgotten. The lighting and colour used in the film give one a very nostalgic feeling for the Hollywood movies of old; all very nicely done. I read somewhere the movie was shot on film, not digital: that helps explain the 1950s feel of "La La Land", as well as the very obvious influence of several classic musicals such as "Singing in the Rain" and "An American in Paris".
The centrepiece of this film however, are the first-rate performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. They are not great singers or dancers, but they breathe life into their characters of Sebastian and Mia. You get to like these characters, you get to care what happens to them, you feel through their highs and lows, and it becomes important to you to discover how their love affair ends. Speaking of endings, the final few scenes are so bittersweet; what happens to Sebastian and Mia could, in time, become one of the great, classic movie finales.
Finally, there is the music. It is great. Although Gosling plays an up-and-coming jazz pianist, only some of the soundtrack could be described as pure jazz. Much of it is good, solid rhythm-and-blues; even, on occasion, rock 'n' roll. This has been a point of some criticism of the movie from jazz purists. If you are not a jazz purist however, you should find the music soundtrack exciting, toe-tapping, and hummable. You may even want to dash out and buy the music soundtrack album, if there is one. And the shots of Gosling playing the piano? Yes, it really was him, though according to reports I have read on the Internet, he was miming a pre-recorded soundtrack by a professional jazz pianist. No matter. The music in this film qualifies it for an honourable place in the ranks of Hollywood movie musicals.
So, although some of the technical quality of the singing and dancing is definitely not up to the standard of the 1940s and 1950s movie musicals, "La La Land" was highly enjoyable and uplifting. It is a film which scores high as an overall, emotional, nostalgic package, despite some of its individual parts being less than impressive.
If you like romantic movie musicals, chances are you'll enjoy this one.
Gilbert's star rating (out of five): * * * *