An aspiring actress meets an aspiring jazz musician and through the magic of song and dance they have a romance.
La La Land puts its cards on the table right there in the opening sequence, which is a big song-and-dance number staged on a Los Angeles freeway. A simple initiating melody intimately hummed in a jammed car is exploded into a full orchestral piece and a cast of dozens of dancers. I’m no aficionado of musical theatre or cinema – where’re the trench coats and rain? – but to my limited palette it was as spectacular and catchy as any number since the Ziegfeld Follies . From out of that milieu we catch two threads, Mia [Emma Stone] and Sebastian [Ryan Gosling], each caught up in their own troubles and dreams. Each is a recognisable aspirant archetype charmingly brought to life by a script with one eye on the cliche and one beyond and an actor with charisma to spare. Their romance plays out in the perfectly conventional way – chance meetings, a mutual recognition of a spark of interest. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who may not have seen it, but about half way through the film, with the cliches established, it begins to play with variations on those themes that preserve the magic while deepening the characters and their relationship far beyond expectations.
That’s not to say the film isn’t without limitations – I won’t go so far as imperfections exactly. It’s focus on its two leads makes them virtually the entire world of the film, straight-jacketing it into a white middle-class cis-gendered heteronormative love scenario. The film passes the Bechdel test, but lots of people argue that Mia is under-written compared to Sebastian. It’s use of musical conventions from the 1950s is both a great strength and a real potential barrier for those without any exposure to the base genre. The music isn’t necessarily all that compelling or successful either, one friend pointed out to me the weakness of the Audition song which is the hinge of the 3rd act. For all that it’s more emotionally real than almost all of its genre peers, it’s nevertheless still an obvious wish-fulfilment story that doesn’t speak to the kinds of lived experiences that give dramatic heft to most of its competitors for the top spot.
I didn’t see La La Land at TIFF last year because it was impossible to get tickets to it. It was the first film I saw in 2017, in a packed screening at Lighthouse Cuba. I’ve been to see 9 films in the cinema since then, and every time I’ve been queuing for tickets to something I’ve looked at the screening times and been seriously tempted to ditch my intended new experience to see this again. Because of the timing, it didn’t make my top-5 for 2016, but if it isn’t amongst the top picks for 2017 when December rolls around this year, I’ll be pretty surprised – delighted that 5 films came out that were better than this, but surprised. Despite its limitations, this is the best film of those nominated, and deserves to win. Whether I’d pick it over, say, Brimstone or Eye in the Sky is a quandary I luckily don’t have.