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La La Land

Year: 2016
Production Co: Black Label Media
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, J K Simmons

Despite the buzz and spectacular box office this movie attracted there were probably a fair few people like me who came to it pretty late and girded themselves to be disappointed. After all the fawning it seemed on the cusp of ushering in global peace or curing cancer.

I was dubious from the get go. Like Saving Mr Banks, Hugo, Trumbo, Argo and The Artist, it looked like a movie built from the ground up to have the movie industry itself falling in love and doing all its marketing for it, talking about it constantly and showering it with awards.

I don't doubt writer/director Damian Chazelle's motives were more pure than that – he no doubt loves romantic old musicals and wanted to do one with broad brush strokes of modernity. But if I was a producer or financier I'd have jumped on board at the first opportunity.

Why? There's nothing Hollywood loves more than stories about itself. With the same breakneck speed it hung Nate Parker out to dry in the midst of the buzz about The Birth of a Nation when his rape trial came to light, it lifted Chazelle (already a beloved new son of the industry thanks to Whiplash, and deservedly so) and his movie onto its shoulders and shouted about them from the rooftops.

So after all that build-up, was it a huge let down? If you've read any of the reviews I've written about musicals you know how I feel about them. I'm the one in the cinema in every Disney movie who groans and slumps back into my seat when they break out into song, so I was prepared for La La Land to be bound by those trappings.

And actually whether it was the songs, the way they integrated into the story, whether I subconsciously found them unobtrusive or just the mood I was in, they didn't grate on me the way I expected.

The story behind them is also very heartfelt, and the movie does deserve kudos because of its most modern element – the ending that would have been the typical happy ending we typically saw in the movies La La Land homages.

It's about the whole mystique of Hollywood, how the grind, desperation, misery and humiliation of trying to make it gives the place the magical, glittering aura it's had for a century – to say nothing of the quality of the light. For Sebastian (Ryan Gosling at his dreamy best), it's playing synthesiser dressed like an idiot in a new Wave 90s band at a lavish Hollywood party when he really wants to open his own classic jazz club.

For Mia (Emma Stone), it's getting to auditions late with coffee spilled all over herself where's she up against prettier girls and where the disinterested casting agent spends half the audition looking at a phone.

The pair cross paths more than once and initially share the archetypal relationships we've seen everywhere from His Girl Friday to Moonlighting – sneery about each others' outlook and interests. But as you know just as well as Chazelle does, it's a one-track path to falling in love.

The movie shifts gear to the biggest modern twist on the romantic old tale, where people with big dreams both settle and start to grow apart. Mia and Seb hardly see each other because he's joined a band that's constantly on the road and pays well, but his own success threatens to make him give up his dream, and only Mia can see it.

The resulting fight is the third act crisis moment, and to the script's credit, it resolves it in a way you don't expect and which itself became part of the mystique about the movie and how it's both sad and beautiful at the same time. The word 'bittersweet' very much applies – is the cost of chasing our dreams worth it, and where are we left if we discover it isn't when it's too late to do anything about it?

Los Angeles itself provides much of the cinematography, the lavish sunsets, sparkling hills at night and art deco movie houses providing their own sense of gilded romance, and the script does the rest. I'm the worst critic of musicals and while it certainly didn't cure cancer, it was the best example of what the genre could be.

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