Given the consensus that 2016 was an annus horribilis, what a relief to kick off 2017 with the gigantic filmic fillip that is La La Land.
Winner of 7 Golden Globes and 11 BAFTA nominations this week, its dances into UK cinemas on a wave of goodwill and hype, expectations which it may well find it tough to meet. It’s just a movie, after all, not a universal panacea.
But just as the first wave of Hollywood musicals pepped people through the Great Depression of the early 1930s, so Damian Chazelle’s unabashedly romantic and colourful post-post-modern musical will have us floating all the way up to the Oscars, at least.
I first saw the film back at its world premiere at the Venice film festival on the last day of August 2015. Then, my eyes widened and my jaw dropped in sheer delight at the audacity and old-fashioned classiness of this new picture.
I’ve seen it again since, and fallen even deeper in love with it and, I readily admit, with its stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. They were all adorable enough already, but now it’s frankly ridiculous.
What’s most fabulous about La La Land is that is, above all else, effortlessly cool. It is camp, certainly, but not in the Baz Luhrmann or Bob Fosse jazz hands sort of ways. It is entirely comfortable in its own skin and while it constantly draws attention to its musical movie nature, it never feels like it has to be ironic or apologetic about it.
In fact, it’s probably the first musical of the post-ironic age, signalling a huge relief for cinema in particular which, for far too long, has been hampered by a cynical self-consciousness and restless self-reflexivity.
To witness La La Land burst free of all that, from its dazzling opening number on the LA freeway to its poignant final musical montage of what-might-have-been, makes the heart soar, as if on gossamer wings.
Gosling is wannabe jazz pianist and jazz club owner Sebastian, who meets Stone’s Mia, a wannabe actress who works on the Warner Bros lot in the coffee shop. From the off, the film is about dreamers and dreams, romance and love, all in the city of LA, which is capable of making them and dashing them in one fickle moment.
Chazelle – whose previous film Whiplash was about the demonic sacrifices for perfection made by a student jazz drummer and his draconian dragon of a teacher – fashions musical numbers all over the city: that mass boogie in the traffic jam; a witty ditty among flat mates; a magical tap routine in the hills; a flight of fancy up to the stars from the Griffith observatory; a jazz club jam session; even at an acting audition.
All the while, the film remains light on its feet, loveable and hummable. But it’s more than that, with an undercurrent of inevitable sadness tinkling away in the minor keys. While reminding us of the impossibility of following your dreams and having it all, La La Land is a film that has everything.
It makes me want to dance and cry and you’ll want to see it again as soon as it’s over, like Mia Farrow watching Astair and Rogers do Cheek to Cheek at the end of The Purple Rose of Cairo. I do hope some inventive cinema somewhere is playing it on a continuous, all-day loop, so people can wander in and out, the old-fashioned way.
You don’t have to love old musicals to adore La La Land – for sure, experts can count off the references (from Bandwagon to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, West Side Story, An American in Paris and Woody’s Everyone Says I Love You) – because in a way, it’s the indie-ish dialogue between the songs that makes it feel contemporary and zingy and Stone and Gosling excel in this regard, anchoring their very of-the-moment credentials to the bedrock of Justin Hurwitz’s jazz-tinged score.
I don’t want to make too big a claim for it but, as such, this thoroughly modern, indie-feeling film that’s about love, cinema and the power of dreams is enough to restore your faith in life itself. Not bad for a movie.