Hollywood loves a gimmick. Five years ago, The Artist was released to critical acclaim and a host of awards on the back of being a modern-day black-and-white silent film. The audacity of this venture effectively obscured the impressive mediocrity of everything else on screen. (Quick test: can you remember anyone ever mentioning the film in the last five years?) The cynic in me says that the inevitable success of La La Land is founded on similarly shallow hype. And let’s be clear, it’s on an express train to winning everything. (Not the Gatwick Express. Like a train in Japan or something.)
Already a darling of film reviewers everywhere, and having cleaned up at the Golden Globes, it’s not at all difficult to predict that it’s similarly going to sweep the Oscars. And why? Because it’s nostalgic, a throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood (it even throws in scenes and settings from Rebel Without a Cause). A vibrant, dazzling musical of the type that we just don’t make anymore. Like The Artist, it’s a revival of something that audiences stopped wanting. Ironic really: something dead and buried presented as something fresh.
It isn’t that groundbreaking. In particular, its story is formulaic almost to the point of parody. There’s a struggling musician. A struggling actress. They both have dreams. They fall in love. It’s every cliche in the book, and if I tell you that the ending is bittersweet, then you can essentially plot the entire narrative of the film. (Sorry.) It also does that weird self-referential and contradictory thing where it idolises Hollywood while also presenting it as an impossible, soul-destroying dream. (I wonder if the casting for the film was as harsh as the casting the film portrays.)
And yet. Oh my god, is this film beautiful. Stunning use of colour and shadow; impeccable and ingenious framing; precise but dynamic choreography. All of this coupled with long takes and a moving camera that laps up every detail of every scene. Yes, the film is full of dancing, but even when they’re not dancing, there’s a joyous energy to it all. Damien Chazelle is probably going to become the youngest ever winner of the Best Director Oscar and, boy, does he deserve it.
So maybe there is something fresh here after all. La La Land manages to repurpose its nostalgia as something creative and new – not in terms of story, but in terms of style. This is an astonishingly stylish piece of cinema. The Hollywood musicals of the past couldn’t produce either the visual effects or camera movements that the film deploys with such superb skill and care. From the bravado opening scene to the dizzyingly inventive climax, every moment is crammed with stuff to admire.
This all makes it sound like a classic example of style over substance, but the truth is that it’s almost impossible not to be won over by this film. Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are superb – Stone in particular – while the music that anchors the story is gorgeous, soulful and super catchy. It’s joyful throughout, and quite funny, with just the right amount of melancholy to keep it from feeling too goofy. It’s also unafraid to be honest, with a poignant message about the necessity of sacrifice. And ultimately, as unadventurous as the narrative may be, there’s more than enough adventure in the cinematography to make up for it. Prepare to have a silly grin plastered to your face; this is an easy film to fall in love with.