Film review: La La Land

The frenzied expectation surrounding writer-director Damien Chazelle's musical love story was deafening before La La Land won a record seven Golden Globe awards earlier this week.

Ryan Gosling as Sebastian Wilder and Emma Stone as Mia Dolan
Ryan Gosling as Sebastian Wilder and Emma Stone as Mia Dolan

His impeccably crafted follow-up to Whiplash is now firmly installed as the frontrunner for glory at next month’s Oscars, and already has one trembling hand on the coveted golden statuettes for Best Picture and Best Director.

The feverish hype is fully justified.

La La Land is a visually sumptuous, unabashedly swooning valentine to the golden age of Hollywood musicals, artfully constructed on a foundation of distinctly modern sensibilities.

Yes, characters burst into catchy songs composed by Justin Hurwitz, with snappy lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, to express their churning emotions, while their bodies tap, pirouette, twist and jive to Mandy Moore’s expressive choreography.

But there is so much more to Chazelle’s story of boy meets girl than doe-eyed glances and pat sentiment, including a heart-wrenching second act that affirms the need for everyone to chase their dreams, but also acknowledges the acrid pill we must swallow when reality bites, down to the bone.

Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) works as a barista in between auditions, which repeatedly end in crushing rejection.

On a traffic-jammed Los Angeles freeway, she crosses paths with talented pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who reveres jazz in its purest form, but is forced to play saccharine standards by restaurant owner Bill (JK Simmons).

“I hate jazz,” Mia tells Sebastian after they meet at a party in the Hollywood hills, where they share dreams for the future beneath the twinkling stars of the Californian night sky.


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Sebastian is convinced he can spearhead a new appreciation for music until an old classmate, Keith (John Legend), questions his devotion to masters of a bygone era.

“You’re holding on to the past,” laments Keith, “but jazz is about the future.”

While Mia prepares to stage her semi-autobiographical one-woman show So Long, Boulder City, Sebastian agrees to play keyboard in Keith’s soulless, chart-friendly band The Messengers. Frustrations between the couple come to a head in a fractious to and fro about artistic integrity.

“Since when do you care so much about being liked?” snarls Mia.


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“You’re an actress!” Sebastian angrily reminds her, introducing pot to black kettle.

La La Land is a perfect marriage of directorial brio, tour-de-force performance and jaw-dropping production design.

Gosling and Stone are individually luminous and electrifying as a double-act in high energy song and dance sequences.

Both are gifted emotionally wrought solos – City Of Stars and Audition (The Fools Who Dreams) respectively – that galvanise Sebastian and Mia’s perilously fragile romance.


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Chazelle’s film is a bitter and sweet confection in equal doses, laced with dry wit and an appreciation for the tug of war between love and career advancement that necessitates painful self-sacrifices for either side to triumph.