I didn’t realise it was still possible to even get financial backing for an old-style film like La La Land, with borderline absurd reasons for a song and dance and an in-and-out-of-love underlying storyline. It may have been something to do with where I was sat in the cinema auditorium, but the orchestra, even in a Hollywood film, with all the post-production mixing and editing, threatened to drown out the vocals.
Not that anyone really belted as they would on a Broadway or West End stage, and a lot of the vocals in the larger ensemble numbers sounded too similar to be distinct voices, which makes me suspect (not having read up about the film or having to hand the sort of background information that I am (sometimes) supplied with before seeing a show at the theatre) – that there might just be some lip-synching going on. This is nothing new, really: it’s Peggy Wood who we see as the Mother Abbess in the motion picture version of The Sound of Music, but Margery McKay that we hear singing ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’.
This show – sorry, sorry, film – wastes no time in launching into an all-out musical number. Imagine that iconic music video of REM’s ‘Everybody Hurts’, but instead of a mellow and reflective tune (that comes later), people stuck in a traffic jam get out and take out the jazz hands and dance moves to an upbeat song. Even I found this a little difficult to get my head around – there’s little gladness in a traffic jam even in the theatre. The nearest thing to a ‘happy, happy, joy, joy’ approach when getting around a metropolis that comes to my mind ‘There Is Life Outside Your Apartment’ from Avenue Q , and even there there’s . Nonetheless, here, this is winter, and it’s ‘Another Day of Sun’. No wonder there are reported water shortages in that part of the world.
The only way, then, to distinguish one season from another is to have signs telling us we’re in spring, or ‘fall’, or whatever. Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), a pianist, drives a convertible all year round, though strangely it’s never too hot to sing and dance. Variation in the styles of numbers is achieved by Sebastian’s strong interest in jazz. But for all the razzmatazz and exhilaration of the big and bold numbers like ‘Someone In The Crowd’ and the contemporary-styled crowd-pleaser ‘Start A Fire’, the movie’s strongest number by some distance is the contemplative ‘City of Stars’, so good it is not only reprised twice but is the winner of the 2017 Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song.
There’s a lot for aficionados of musical theatre to recognise from elsewhere. Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, does audition after audition but with no luck. Think Cathy Hiatt in Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years and the number ‘Climbing Uphill’. Keith (John Legend) comes along and gives the struggling Sebastian a leg up into the big leagues: take any show you like where the main protagonist is suddenly given a second chance and seizes the day. But it’s not all wholly predictable – I didn’t foresee the ending turning out as it did, for instance.
It’s certainly a very strong cinematic experience. A scene at the Griffith Observatory is nothing short of breathtaking. Both Gosling and Stone are well-cast, him with an edgy grittiness that makes Sebastian so much more than just another slightly out of left field musician with a crazy dream, her so compelling as someone who pushes and pushes with everything she’s got, only to find it’s not quite enough. Or is it? I’ve seen Mia’s sort of theatrical debut from a reviewer’s perspective, a near empty theatre with box office takings that would could never break-even, and most of us seated were either press, agents, or friends and family with comps. It was all the more uncomfortable seeing it from Mia’s perspective.
There is, therefore, a large dose of reality about the difficulties encountered pursuing a career in the entertainment industry – and keeping going even if one does ‘make it’. The chemistry between the two leads is entirely believable. This, combined with the escapist song and dance, make this a joyous, both light and dark humoured, wonderful motion picture.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.