“What do you mean you don’t like jazz?”
‘La La Land’, directed by Damien Chazelle in 2016, is an American romantic comedy musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actress who, over the course of a year, forms a relationship with Sebastian, played by Gosling, a Jazz pianist whose ambition is to open his own club. The movie dips in and out of fantasy as their affair plays out and the characters struggle to balance their romance with the burdens and opportunities of their dreams. It’s a far more nostalgic and softer-edged movie than Chazelle’s earlier ‘Whiplash’. The director draws on the rich cinematic heritage of musicals, most notably ‘Top Hat’, ‘An American in Paris’, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, and, particularly, Jacques Demy’s ‘Les Demoiselles de Rochefort’. The style, tone and balance of fantasy and reality is very similar to Demy’s, which gives this movie a feeling of ‘pastness’. Much like the jazz motif that the film focuses on, this nostalgia is riffed upon and constantly updated with references to modern LA with in-jokes about Prius’s, baristas, strip clubs and challenging auditions. The plot follows the comfortingly simple path of a romantic comedy, but the film is deceptively simple and develops themes, similar to anyone who has watched Fellini’s movies (particularly ‘Amarcord‘), of nostalgia, celebrity, and regrets. The final sequence, in which Sebastian re-treads the events of the film through a grandstanding dance number, is the culmination of these themes. It’s a film that manages to use old fashioned techniques both tap into what made the classic musicals so great, but that also updates them, much like the jazz music that is referenced throughout. Beyond all this, the film is about the city of LA, a town built on the industry of creating fantasy. ‘La La Land’ was, for me, David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Dr.’ with the corruption and darkness pushed to the back but still managing to relay the idea of a city that is half mythic artifice and half grimy reality, sometimes just a block apart.
Would I recommend it? It’s nudging its way into my list of all-time favourite films, although time will tell if the themes and feeling it inspired will linger. I’d watch after a crash course of ‘Top Hat’, ‘An American in Paris’ and ‘Les Demoiselles de Rochefort’, followed by a double bill with ‘Mulholland Dr.’.