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La La Land: the film to beat at the Oscars

La La Land: the film to beat at the Oscars

Damien Chazelle’s joyous musical, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, makes you fall back in love with the sing-along. Could it spark a trend?

Damien Chazelle’s joyous musical, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, makes you fall back in love with the sing-along. Could it spark a trend?

Nicholas Barber | September 8th 2016

Wherever you went at the Venice Film Festival last week, you would hear somebody whistling the opening bars of “City of Stars”, the signature song from Damien Chazelle’s musical, “La La Land”. Partly, that was because the theme recurs so often in the film (too often, probably) that it worms its way into the listener’s brain. But it was also proof that “La La Land” will be a hit. At the time of writing, Chazelle’s sparkling tribute to the golden age of Hollywood musicals had a score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator. And there is no doubt that when the Baftas and the Oscars roll around, “La La Land” will be the film to beat.

And after that? Considering that Hollywood has never been slow to cash in on its successes, there is a chance that it will set a trend. For the Astaire and Rogers fans among us, it’s easy to fantasise that there will be a flood of musicals from, say, the Coen brothers (who paid their own toe-tapping tribute to golden-age Tinseltown this year with “Hail, Caesar!”), and Michel Hazanavicius (who put a dance number at the end of his Oscar-winning film “The Artist”), and Joss Whedon (who wrote and directed a musical episode of his television series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). And there are signs that audiences are ready for a big-screen musical revival. Numerous repertory cinemas, including the Prince Charles in London, have regular sing-along nights, at which the audience is encouraged to dress up and belt out songs from “The Sound of Music” and “Frozen”. Meanwhile, televised stage shows have become an unlikely phenomenon lately. NBC have broadcast live productions of “Hairspray”, “The Sound of Music”, “Wiz” and “Peter Pan”, and Fox joined in with “Grease”, “The Passion” and “The Rocky Horror Show”.

On the other hand, “The Artist”, didn’t set off an avalanche of new black-and-white silent films, so it would be foolish to predict The Return of the Musical. As sad as I am to admit it, the brilliance of “La La Land” is down to some very unusual factors, which make it hard to imitate.

The first is that the 31-year-old Chazelle has a profound fondness for and understanding of music and musicals. His breakthrough film, “Whiplash”, examined the unfashionable subject of big-band jazz-drumming. Chazelle – a drummer at high-school – used rapid-fire editing, sweat-drenched close-ups, intense acting and combative dialogue to give it the adrenaline-pumping energy of a sports movie. Before “Whiplash”, his debut film was 2009’s “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench”, a low-budget, black-and-white musical which posed the question: can a man ever be content with a woman who doesn’t appreciate jazz as much as he does? That question returns in “La La Land”. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play an aspiring actress and pianist, struggling to find fame in Los Angeles. They are enchanted by classic films and jazz records, and so the film bursts with affectionate references to “An American in Paris” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”, as well as bittersweet acknowledgements that life can’t always be as happy as it is on the silver screen.

“La La Land”, then, isn’t a gimmicky one-off experiment for Chazelle – as “Everybody Says I Love You” was for Woody Allen, and “8 Women” was for François Ozon. Nor is it the work of a theatre veteran who doesn’t have a clue about cinema, such as Phyllida Lloyd’s “Mamma Mia” or Susan Stroman’s “The Producers”. The reason Chazelle can celebrate and subvert Hollywood musicals so deftly is that they are as central to his film-making identity as violent crime thrillers are to Quentin Tarantino’s. It’s no wonder that “La La Land” makes its audience fall back in love with the genre. We can tell that Chazelle is in love with it, too.

A related point: “La La Land” is fun. Most recent film musicals, such as “Les Miserables”, “Into the Woods”, “Sweeney Todd” and “The Last Five Years”, have had comic interludes, but their over-riding tone has been either glum or grandiose or both. But right from its opening sequence – a traffic jam which develops into a joyous song-and-dance number – “La La Land” shows its audience a good time, constantly engaging us with bright blocks of colour, enchanting fantasy sequences, and attractive actors playing loveable characters. It’s that rare film musical which has the viewer bursting into song rather than into tears.

This positivity leads us to one last crucial factor. There have been hardly any great romantic comedies over the last decade, largely because contemporary rom-coms tend to be too cynical to make our hearts flutter. But the unironic, witty “La La Land” is a beguiling romantic comedy – and it would have been even if its songs, by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, had been left on the cutting-room floor. But then what would anyone have had to whistle at the Venice Film Festival?

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