Who better to send to see the musical that’s hoovering up awards? Over to you, Sooz Kempner…
Zip-zap-a-zuzical, Sooz loves a musical!
When I heard that Damien Chazelle, the writer/director of 2014’s Oscar-nominated Whiplash, had a musical coming out just in time for awards season, my ears pricked up like a stagey horse. I might even have done a little dance (I did).
Whiplash was an exhilarating, bombastic study of an ambitious jazz drummer and his sadistic tutor and the finale was one of the most thrilling in 10 years. La La Land had a tough act to follow.
Here’s the gist: Emma Stone plays Mia, a struggling actress trying to make a dent in Hollywood and writing a one-woman show. Ryan Gosling is Seb, a similarly struggling jazz pianist who wants to open his own club. They meet, fall in love and live happily ever after. Except, despite paying tribute to the MGM musicals of the 1950s, this is very much a contemporary story about real people and real relationships.
“I’ve found myself humming City Of Stars constantly since leaving the cinema. I might have also tap danced a little bit down an escalator at Leicester Square tube (I did).”
Chazelle’s direction of his own script is so assured it’s hard to fathom that he’s in his early 30s. The camera is always moving, sometimes chasing the film’s characters, sometimes creeping up on them but it’s rarely still until key moments, notably a much-lauded song and dance number that is kept in a very traditional two-shot.
I’ve seen some pundits describe the movie as a love letter to LA but I don’t think that’s the case here. It’s a cynical look at a city full of desperate someones in the crowd and manages to stay exactly the right side of bitter.
A musical can succeed and fail on its score and although La La Land isn’t as packed with showtunes as you might expect from the trailer, the songs that are there are gorgeous and perfectly meld with the action. Someone in the Crowd is the standout but I’ve found myself humming City Of Stars constantly since leaving the cinema. I might have also tap danced a little bit down an escalator at Leicester Square tube (I did).
The performances of Stone and Gosling have been highly praised, both winning Golden Globes this month and Stone, in particular, a frontrunner for an Oscar. They are both likeable, believable, funny and heartbreaking, and their chemistry is incredible. Such naturalistic performances set against the vibrant technicolour of LA is nothing new. This was covered in Scorsese’s ridiculously underrated 1977 musical New York, New York starring Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro (yes, really) as a couple in 1940s New York.
It makes an excellent double-bill with La La Land and I was reminded of it constantly watching Chazelle’s film. It’s got the same unaffected dialogue set against painted backdrops and anti-realistic lighting and I hope the success of La La Land sees a rediscovery of this forgotten masterpiece.
I trained in musical theatre (yes, it is a real degree!) and there’s a lot of slightly dodgy singing and dancing in newer film musicals that can be distracting. For every Meryl Streep there’s a Russell Crowe. So, did Stone and Gosling cut the mustard as hoofers ‘n’ belters? Well… they’re not Gene Kelly or Judy Garland. And it doesn’t matter one iota. They sing and dance perfectly well and at no point does a less-than-epic singing performance take me out of these characters who I fell in love with as they fell in love on screen.
La La Land is beautiful, moving, witty and real. My face was a stupid wet mess at several points and in some of the big numbers you couldn’t keep the smile off my face.
Best Picture? I reckon.
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Funny Women Variety Award Winner 2012. ASDA Kate Bush.