La La Land is an absolute joy, to watch and to listen to. It was probably the most fun two hours I’ve had at the cinema since a really excellent first date back in 1987 with the friend of the guy I was meant to meet but who didn’t turn up (Reader, I didn’t marry him. Or him). Just be aware that La La Land will very quickly attack your senses, and make you want to put on a show right here.
The film opens with one of those big musical numbers where everyone jumps out of cars or slides out of windows and starts dancing and singing with complete randoms who happily know all the words and fancy footwork. So far, so my school run in the morning. It is very funny, and is half-laughing at itself (at one point someone pushes up the door on a truck and a whole band is in there, playing away on their instruments).
It can feel a bit much, straight off, especially if you’re a slightly cynical Brit (which, singalong-a-school-run notwithstanding, I pretty much am). Usually these kinds of scenes are 1950s-set, or earlier, and that distance helps us suspend disbelief. La La Land is set right now, so you have to make a big adjustment very quickly, especially if you’re used to watching depressing arthouse films that are super-worthy but super-dull where nothing every happens, no one says much and everyone smokes enigmatically for three and a half hours.
But make that adjustment, as you WILL thank me. The colours are bright (yes that staple beloved of musical dancing girls, the brightly coloured flippy dresses with matching coloured knickers, is here, and the sun always shines in La La Land). The cast frequently break into song, while their feet tap tap tap away in their black and white clickety clack shoes. And the emotions are big – lots of laughter and crying. And Seb (Ryan Gosling) also has a really, really loud car horn which he uses to get Mia (Emma Stone)’s attention.
I was so swept along with the general joi-de-vivre that it didn’t really occur to me until afterwards that La La Land isn’t original, story-wise. Girl meets boy, they don’t get on, they meet later, they’re humorously mean to each other, they wander around at night together, they accidentally don’t meet up, then they do. I won’t tell you the whole plot in well-worn romantic comedy tropes but they are there.
Luckily Stone and Gosling are so engaging that none of this matters, and they bring a delightful freshness to their roles and the story (Gosling in particular is hilarious, as well as possessing the most hard working fringe in show business), so you totally end up rooting for them to succeed professionally and romantically.
Mia is an out of work actress trying to make it big in LA. She works as a barista on the Warner Brothers film lot, leaving early when she can to dash for auditions where she suffers indignity piled on indignity – giving her all in emotional scenes, she is regularly ignored by casting people yet has to nobly carry on until they remember she’s there at which point they immediately ask her to leave. (The difficulty here is that Stone is such a good actress, watching it you can’t imagine why she isn’t offered every job. She’s Emma Stone FFS!).
Her competitors are usually prettier and more put together than she is, though there is a lovely little scene where she leaves an audition and two other girls from the same casting call get in the lift with her, all three women in the standard coffee shop uniform of black trousers and white shirt.
Seb is a jazz musician – a keyboardist and jazz traditionalist desperate to keep the music alive even though his friend Keith (John Legend) tells him he’s “playing for 90 year olds” – who ends up playing Christmas songs on the piano at a late night dinner club. But he’s fired for constantly trying to sneak in some free-form jazz.
Mia hears Seb play and follows the music into the club just as he’s been sacked, but he pushes past her as she tries to tell him how much she likes his playing. Over the next few months they keep bumping into each other, their relationship growing stronger as they are ruder and ruder to each other. They end up one night after the cinema at the Griffith Observatory, looking at the stars, where I had one of those bizarre realism-in-fantasy-film moments thinking how ridiculous to imply anyone could really wander at will inside the observatory in the middle of the night with no appointment and with all that expensive equipment lying around, whilst ignoring the fact that the pair then took off and drifted up into the night sky, dancing as they flew. (I actually googled the observatory and they shut at 10pm which is when the film they were seeing was meant to start so I WAS RIGHT).
As time passes in LA (the seasons are marked on screen) each is trying to help the other stay focussed, and do what’s necessary to live their dreams. He wants to open a jazz bar and has to take an on-the-road keyboardist job in a very non-traditional jazz band put together by Keith, to save the money up; she writes a one-woman show to get herself noticed among the hoards of young actress wannabes. And the more their dreams now feel within reach, the further the two of them are forced apart.
There’s a terrific scene where Seb and Mia are watching a jazz band perform – Seb describes what’s going on to Mia (who has admitted she “doesn’t like jazz”) as a fight, with different players trying to wrest control: “he just hijacked the song”. It’s all about conflict and compromise, he says (which is slightly heavy-handed as a relationship allegory but as a way of explaining jazz to a 90s guitar band freak like me is actually really useful).
La La Land is a fun love story but part way through you realise that they are each facilitating the other’s dreams and an innate sadness creeps in as it becomes less and less likely that their different needs can be met within their relationship. It is quite an odd mix of – what, realist escapism? Escapist realism?
It is though hugely enjoyable, a film that make you want to cartwheel home through the rain-drenched streets afterwards. Not that anyone in LA seems to do anything but drive everywhere (if I was starring in La La Land it would basically be me singing about the train being late and someone driving through a puddle splashing my outfit before an audition, and the film would run to 3.5 hours as I waited for bus after bus).
La La Land is a happy, joyous movie but it also demonstrates that underneath the brightly hued cityscape of optimism and hedonism, the place itself makes life much more of a struggle for its residents – as Seb says, in LA they worship everything and value nothing.