The Film: La La Land
The Pitch: A Star
is Born Works Really Hard and Suffers Intense Humiliation and Rejection
Number of Nominations: 14
Which Categories? Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Original Song (two nominations), Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing
Will it Win? Yes: it’s going home with a clutch of Oscars, including the Big One.
Hollywood loves nothing more than celebrating itself, even when a film viciously satirizes the city and the industry (The Player, Swimming With Sharks), so a major movie about a couple of ambitious young talents trying to get ahead in movies and music in Los Angeles was always going to appeal. With an astonishing fourteen nominations, critical praise and good box-office, Damian Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is almost certainly going to clean up at the Oscars.
Best Picture seems a dead certainty, as does Best Original Score and Best Original Song (it’s nominated twice in that category, but I think that “Audition” will win). Damian Chazelle‘s direction is assured and he manages a few bravura feats of choreography (including a truly spectacular opening), and it’s possible the Academy will be swept up by his story. He also just won the Directors Guild Award, so his odds of winning the Oscar just got a lot better. I don’t think the film deserves Best Original Screenplay because other than the how the film ends (more on that later) it isn’t a particularly inspired script, and it’s up against The Lobster, Hell or High Water, Manchester by the Sea and 20th Century Women.
Synopsis: Aspiring actress Mia and jazz pianist Sebastian struggle to realize their dreams in Los Angeles despite the often soul-crushing commercial nature of show business. As they endure rejection and forge unexpected paths to stardom, the young couple also strives to sustain the love they were surprised to find.
There are many reasons why La La Land works and connects with audiences. It stars two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, both of whom dial their charms all the way up to 11. It’s a relentlessly upbeat, pleasant movie in a year where events in the real world have put most of us on Apocalypse-watch: escaping for two hours into a story about a couple falling in love and struggling with their dreams is an attractive option. Most of all, though, it’s a musical, a genre that used to be a staple of Hollywood and is now almost forgotten (interestingly, another nominee, Hell or High Water belongs to an oft-dismissed genre, the western).
The film begins with an all-out show-stopping song and dance number sure to get your toes tapping, an intricately choreographed sequence involving LA commuters caught in gridlock singing the praises of the city and its allure for wannabes who daily hop off the bus in the hope if making it in showbiz.
Nothing else in the film comes close to the perfection of that sequence, but that’s the point. Mia and Sebastian are talented, but are they any more talented than anyone else who struggles to make it as an artist? The two leads succeed through hard work and luck as much as through talent – this isn’t the sort of film where an unknown is discovered and suddenly plunged into fame, although Mia’s arc does contain an element of the sort of fantasy that keeps people flocking to Los Angeles determined to be the next major Hollywood star.
Most of the songs and dances in La La Land are good, but they’re hardly memorable, and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are no Fred and Ginger (Stone can sing better than Gosling can, at least – then again, Astaire wasn’t really a great singer).
Sebastian is a jazz pianist (and a total snob about it) who’s forced to take jobs he doesn’t care for to pay to rent: he bursts out a free jazz number that gets him fired from his easy listening piano tinkling job at a restaurant, and later goes on the road with a band that plays the sort of music he hates, all the while dreaming of one day opening his own jazz club.
Mia is a barista who dreams of the big acting break, and goes through a disheartening round of auditions where the dreaded words “Thanks for coming in” are spoken.
Much of La La Land‘s success is down to the casting of the leads. Stone still has the down-to-earth quality that’s propelled her to stardom. She’s the awkward girl next door with a good heart, here growing bitterly wise about the realities of chasing your dreams: if you’ve been working for years to make it as an artist and nobody knows or cares about your work, is it maybe time to reconsider your career? The film makes great use of Stone’s inherent likability: it’s hard not to sympathise with someone this determined, this heart-broken, and this talented. And Mia is talented: the auditions are for the sorts of silly roles that actresses have to go for – hardnosed cops and so on, but you get the sense that Mia has been studying and working on her craft for some time. Plus she’s a writer, even if her one-woman show may be forgettable. Don’t be surprised if Stone wins Best Actress.
Gosling brings a comic swagger to the part of Sebastian. He’s always been a good actor, and he undoubtedly has charisma, but that has seldom been allowed to shine through as it does here. He’s charming and occasionally vulnerable, and he has the great ability to appear like a puppy who’s just been kicked when it suits.
For all its whimsical flights of fancy, La La Land follows the traditional line of a Boy-Meets-Girl romantic comedy until the final act, when it allows some reality to seep into its love story. I won’t spoil the ending but it’s bittersweet and it’s very well done.
Verdict: Four Croakily-Sung Showtunes out of Five