Hollywood’s new wunderkind has done it again. And this time, with La La Land, Damien Chazelle might be heading for his first Academy Award.
Two young, promising artistic talents under the L.A. sun, filled with joy and love and passion – what could possibly look brighter? But although Chazelle’s La La Land is consistently more cheerful than his music drama-thriller Whiplash (2014) was, it isn’t quite as naïve as its sweet surface of retro musical fun would have you believe. This isn’t the 1930s, and Chazelle isn’t Frank Capra.
So, yes, we see our protagonists, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), fall in love with each other, we follow their beautiful romance with googly eyes and see them try to ‘make it’ in the show business. Yet, we also witness the challenges they face, the fights, the disappointments, and, finally, the sacrifices they make. Without discussing too many plot details here, La La Land, in the end, turns out to cast at least a bit of a sceptical look at Hollywood’s traditional version of the American Dream.
The satisfying thing about Chazelle’s musical, however, is that it cleverly manages to pay homage to classic Hollywood cinema—and to Hollywood itself—even while partly subverting its mythology. Nor is it entirely bad for the movie, of course, that Stone and Gosling shine in every scene, making for a (ridiculously photogenic) screen couple.
The real star, though, is Linus Sandgren’s camera: the opening sequence already—a dynamic long take on a highway—, almost seems to have the potential to be mentioned in the same breath as Emmanuel Lubezki’s celebrated single-shot sequences in Children of Men (2006). And throughout the film it is Sandgren’s cinematography that luckily doesn’t often steal, but that definitely always enables the show. Indeed, apart from Chazelle’s script, which is as innovative as possible within its self-chosen genre boundaries and the confines of the studio system, Sandgren’s work deserves pretty much half the credit that La La Land has received for “innovation”, or “reinvention” of a genre. Dynamic, fluid, always in motion, his cinematography seems to play on the notion of dancing, thereby considerably enhancing Chazelle’s vision of the musicality of the entire piece.
Complemented by some lovely, catchy original tunes (albeit most of them very obviously pre-recorded), a charmingly retro set design, and some great work by the art department, Chazelle and Sandgren’s pretty pictures not only make for a satisfying entertainment movie worth its name, but, above all, they provide an infusion of hope for its audience and for the future of cinema alike.
So, will La La Land win big at the Oscars? Although I haven’t seen many of the contenders this year, I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say that it will. Both the Golden Globe Awards and the BAFTAs point in that direction. Plus, if there’s one thing that Academy members never seem to get enough of, it is a self-reflexive nod to their own industry. In view of the current political climate and other nominees like Denzel Washington with Fences, it might not be the wisest of the Academy’s decisions if they do show all-out support for a decidedly unpolitical popcorn movie—and one telling the story of a white musician hoping to save jazz, no less. Prepare for a rebirth of #oscarssowhite. However, that does not diminish the artistic merit of La La Land. Films can be a lot of things: political, for instance, or enjoyable. Is an American movie undeserving of recognition because Donald Trump is President and it fails to provide social commentary? I don’t think so. So as far as I am concerned: let the show begin, and let’s celebrate whoever wins.
“Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem.”
La La Land (US 2016). Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Cinematography: Linus Sandgren. Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and John Legend. 128 min.