La La Land (12A) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Damien Chazelle, US, 2016. 128 mins.

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone

A star-studded mainstream film with and a musical spine is a rare thing; but La La Land doesn’t place every step at precisely as its dancers and without the tested storytelling of Les Miserables or Chicago it is not the classic it flourishes itself as.

In homage to 1950s Hollywood, out-of-work actress Mia (Emma Stone) meets slumming jazz pianist Sebastien (Ryan Gosling) whereupon they set out to conquer fickle Tinsel Town together. There’s an ending that is surprisingly original, but otherwise it plays off nostalgia, recognisable characters and the trials and travails of success and glamour in a saturated and cut-throat industry. The story is set against colourful backdrops with an all-singing, all-dancing ensemble. The focus is firmly carried by Gosling and Stone with varying success.

The opening two sequences are tonally confusing. A traffic jam becomes a whirl of dancing and singing on cars, in and out of the gridlocked cars on a Los Angeles overpass. It should be the ideal kick to start the fun, it feels disjointed though with poor lip-sync and a modern style of dancing straight outta pop video which jars with the old-fashioned vibrant large-scale dance number that it is also trying to hark back to.

The whole film boils down to trying too hard with some great material, of which the chief culprit is Stone. A scene on a bench where Mia and Sebastien dance with forced antagonism is designed to be a charming ‘will they won’t they moment’ where they resist admitting they like each other, ironically though it genuinely lacks the chemistry which they are ‘pretending’ not to have. Latterly the relationship has spark and pathos, but suffers a stuttering start.

The trailer, contrary to most, smoothes out the film and gives it a consistency the feature lacks. The atmosphere is magical as it uses the best melodies to create a feel-good wonder throughout. But as a film it needs to tell a wider, deeper story and it is here where it struggles. These attempts are never borne out through the theatrical happy filter but instead through ‘ordinary’ comparatively prosaic storytelling.

The general idea to the story is close to ‘The Last Five Years’ which was rather unnecessarily made into a film with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan in 2015. In industries that rely on success, relationships suffer if the couple don’t move at the same rate. La La, albeit it in a different city, retreads many of the same boards as the above. The audition montage is notably inferior to the sentiment captured in the brilliant song “Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence” by Jason Robert Brown and wittily performed by Kendrick in the film.

It thinks it’s a bit more brilliant than it is and is no Hail! Caesar in terms of nods to ‘50s Hollywood. It is gorgeous to look at; the colours, costumes, talent and some of the songs are all elements of a classic but it just lacks consistency. Gosling’s nonchalance on the pier singing ‘City of Stars’ steals the show and there is also a cleverly cyclical closure to their tale.

Emma Stone is trying so hard to act it comes over as false – perhaps that is the trouble with a character who is an actress, but the small, witty, dejected performance of Gosling is much more convincing and heart-warming.

Review by George Meixner