La La Land review: “Cinema to make you swoon”

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are both light and fantastic in this exuberant Tinseltown musical from the director of Whiplash

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★★★★★

If ever there was a film to banish the blues, it’s La La Land.

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Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s toe-tapping follow-up to the Oscar-winning Whiplash – his second crack at a musical after his under-the-radar debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench – sees him trade the abusive relationship between a hot-headed mentor and an aspiring drummer for the high and low notes of a love affair, played out against the backdrop of Tinseltown itself. 

In this ode to the dreamers, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play antagonists-turned-lovers Mia and Sebastian – she’s a barista and jobbing actress; he’s a pianist eager to open a jazz club – with them both suffering countless setbacks as they strive to make good on their goals. 

Their first encounter is far from a typical “meet cute”. A bird is casually flipped on a Los Angeles freeway – a welcome bump back to Earth after a lavishly choreographed, in-your-face opening song-and-dance number places the audience firmly within fantasy territory. Fate keeps throwing the pair together until eventually they stick, that’s before their respective careers start pulling them in different directions.

There’s not much call for supporting players (there’s a cameo from Whiplash’s tormentor-in-chief JK Simmons; singer John Legend makes an appearance; Rosemarie DeWitt has a few lines), so enamoured is the film with its leads. Mind you, it’s right to be: they’re fabulous. As they set out on the long and winding road to romance, Mia and Sebastian’s encounters ape the love-hate of screwball comedy – he snubs her, while she exuberantly taunts him at the height of his professional humiliation.

This is career-best work from Stone, who gives a performance of remarkable expressiveness as she runs the gamut of emotion, displaying great strength, buoyant charisma, winning cheekiness and aching vulnerability – all, somehow, with the lightest of touches. While not quite her equal, Gosling complements her charmingly, with his self-deprecating twinkle getting ample employment. It’s the third time he and Stone have fallen in love on screen (following Crazy, Stupid, Love. and Gangster Squad) and they have it down to an art – their chemistry fizzing and bubbling over like a school science project.

Some of the flashier sequences have the feel of showboating (a gravity-defying trip to the planetarium may be an indulgence too far). In moments like these, the film threatens to batter into submission those who aren’t natural-born musical enthusiasts, but it grows more intimate as it wears on. As the cinematically savvy will know, there are many ways to make a musical. La La Land has a go at reinventing the wheel, but not before it pays tribute to the greats, emulating MGM’s finest with bold colour and flamboyant routines and nodding to the winsome charm and mounting melancholy of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

But the audacious Chazelle brings the genre up to date by infusing every scene with a modern sensibility, including ingeniously working technology into the frolics. He makes an ambitious pitch for hard hearts as the couple poke fun at each other and themselves. Moreover, the way La La Land embraces life’s disappointments means it’s as gorgeous in its gloom as in its wonderfully shameless whimsy. It’s a dizzying whirlwind of romance and sorrow, cinema to make you swoon.

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La La Land is released in cinemas on Friday 13 January