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‘La La Land’: musical dream and the reality of relationships

La La Land, Illustration by Brittany Richmond

The Rio Cinema on Kingsland High Street, the art deco pride of Dalston and favourite of London film lovers, could not have provided a more perfect setting for Damien Chazelle’s homage to the golden age of musicals.

Set against the backdrop of the Hollywood hills, the film revolves around Mia, a young struggling actress (Emma Stone) and Sebastian, a young struggling musician (Ryan Gosling). In many ways, their story is age old. Boy and girl meet. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl try to manage their relationship while simultaneously striving to achieve their respective dreams and deal with the disappointments and setbacks which go hand-in-hand with being a small fish in a huge, overwhelming, glamorous pond. Yet, there is nothing too clichéd, nothing too saccharine about this sun-drenched Los Angeles romance. And herein lies the intelligence. Chazelle, who both wrote and directed the film, strikes a perfect balance between old and new, idealism and pragmatism, dream and reality.

Offering an initial insight into this balancing act that will pepper the entirety of the film is the opening number. A song and dance on scale with a big budget Broadway production, the viewer is confronted with a sweltering hot day and a traffic jam that stretches the length of a three-laned freeway. It is a situation any driver knows is hopeless. Yet optimism perseveres, and a radio tune morphs into a full on choreographed extravaganza complete with lifts and high kicks on car bonnets. Perhaps, in isolation worryingly close to a scene from ‘Fame’, we are quickly snapped back into reality by disgruntled passengers and car horns. This is when Sebastian first sets eyes on Mia, while angrily overtaking her Prius. Here again, is this teetering set of scales. We have Mia’s fuel-efficient Prius and Seb’s red leather Buick Rivera, 1950s fashion and mobile phones, classic jazz and the ‘Take on Me’ singers, A-HA. Indeed, it is not immediately clear when the film is set. Of course the Prius is a giveaway, but these references to a near past add a sense of timelessness to the picture and a dream like quality that absorbs and transports us to a different reality somewhat detached from the reality of our own lives.

Following Mia and Seb through the seasons I was completely swept up in its candy-box technicolour, its fuzziness and unapologetic froth. Simple, eloquent dance routines that edge into the unbelievable and frantic, rolling jazz piano are perfectly set off by a tender soundtrack and Stone’s fragile, wavering voice. For me, this is Stone’s best role to date, doe-eyed and full of wit, she soars on the wings of Gosling’s quiet, ‘tortured-genius’ sardonicism.

Importantly, Mia and Seb’s relationship hits some steep speed bumps. I won’t give these away. But this is a romance for the digital age, and therefore must retain a fragment of life’s inherent difficulties and love’s struggle to remain buoyant in a drowning world. Without this, the film would fail.

If for nothing else, see La La Land for the joy of old Hollywood – for Gene Kelly and Catherine Deneuve, ‘Funny Face’ and ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. This city is unforgiving. Allow yourself some escapism and wrap yourself in the warmth of the story’s clever humour, quiet intelligence and flickering yet constant hope.

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