David Strat­ton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Roger Ebert, who died in 2013 and was one of the world’s most highly re­garded film crit­ics, once as­serted that “it is in­suf­fer­able to claim you never see mu­si­cals — or hor­ror movies, or west­erns, or war movies. That’s con­fus­ing ig­no­rance with taste. The trick is to find the good ones.” I’m old enough to have started go­ing to the cinema when mu­si­cals (and west­erns) were the most pop­u­lar gen­res; hardly a week went by when such films weren’t a part of the new re­leases. Most of the Hol­ly­wood mu­si­cals were orig­i­nals, not filmed stage shows, in­clud­ing the great­est of them all, Sin­gin’ in the Rain (1952), but later on, as the genre slipped out of favour with the ad­vent of new forms of pop­u­lar mu­sic (rock es­pe­cially), film ver­sions of stage shows dom­i­nated. And the mu­si­cal, like the western, some­how be­came a de­spised genre for many, viewed as quaint and old-fash­ioned and there­fore not worth see­ing.

The third fea­ture from 31-year-old di­rec­tor Damien Chazelle (who made the Os­car-win­ning Whiplash, 2014) is that rare thing: an orig­i­nal movie mu­si­cal. La La Land, which opened the Venice film fes­ti­val this year (and won for Emma Stone the best ac­tress award there) is, on one level, an ex­er­cise in de­li­cious nos­tal­gia for the cinema’s past — it even opens with a dec­la­ra­tion in huge let­ter­ing that it is Pre­sented in Cine­maS­cope. It is, how­ever, a very con­tem­po­rary story about the clash between art and com­merce, the strengths and pit­falls of ide­al­ism, and how dif­fi­cult it is to ful­fil your youth­ful dreams and am­bi­tions.

The film’s open­ing se­quence is jaw-drop­pingly won­der­ful. The ramp that con­nects the 105 free­way to down­town Los An­ge­les looks like a carpark, clogged with ve­hi­cles that con­tain mostly sin­gle driv­ers. It’s an in­fu­ri­at­ing mess but then … a girl be­gins to sing a song ( other Day of Sun), some­one else joins her, then oth­ers leave their cars and start to sing and dance in a soar­ing cel­e­bra­tion of joy­ful­ness. If only real life were like this! It’s an open­ing se­quence that has been com­pared to the clas­sic open­ing se­quences of dis­sim­i­lar films such as Touch of Evil (1958) and The Player (1992), and it’s likely to be as long re­mem­bered.

Among the peo­ple in­volved in this mu­si­cal traf­fic jam are Mia (Stone) and Se­bas­tian (Ryan Gosling). Mia is an aspir­ing ac­tress who lives with three other young women in an apart­ment fes­tooned with movie posters. She works as a barista at a cof­fee shop on the Warner Bros lot and fre­quently ducks out to at­tend au­di­tions, never with any suc­cess (though Stone is ter­rific in these scenes). As for Se­bas­tian, he’s a mu­si­cian and pas­sion­ate lover of jazz whose dream is to open his own jazz club though he knows, in his heart, that this kind of mu­sic has lost much of its fol­low­ing in the con­tem­po­rary world. So he earns a liv­ing play­ing mu­sic he doesn’t like, and he hates it and him­self.

There are no prizes for guess­ing that these two will meet again, that at first they won’t like each other much, but that soon love will blos­som. And so it does in an­other glo­ri­ous se­quence in which, on a hill over­look­ing the city in twi­light, they sing and dance and ac­knowl­edge their love. But this is a mod­ern love story, so there are pit­falls ahead.

Chazelle fills the movie with ref­er­ences to Hol­ly­wood clas­sics, and not only mu­si­cals ( Rebel with­out a Cause, 1955, re­ceives a ma­jor trib­ute), yet per­haps the prin­ci­pal in­flu­ence on the film is not the Hol­ly­wood mu­si­cal at all but Jac­ques Demy’s two sub­lime French mu­si­cals, The Um­brel­las of Cher­bourg (1963) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), films that, like La La Land, fea­tured mu­si­cal num­bers staged on ac­tual lo­ca­tions and that fil­tered their in­tense ro­man­ti­cism with a gen­uine sense of sad­ness at missed op­por­tu­ni­ties.

When I saw this film in Venice I adored it but feared it would have trou­ble find­ing an au­di­ence. I hope I was wrong. The neatly ti­tled A United King­dom ex­plores a vir­tu­ally for­got­ten cri­sis in post-World War II Bri­tish colo­nial diplo­macy. In 1947, the Bri­tish pro­tec­torate of Bechua­na­land, later called Botswana, was un­der the nom­i­nal con­trol of a re­gent, Tshekedi, while his nephew, Seretse Khama, heir to the throne, com­pleted his stud­ies in Lon­don. Khama’s an­nounce­ment that he La La Land (M) Na­tional re­lease from Box­ing Day A United King­dom (PG) Na­tional re­lease from Box­ing Day Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dance up a storm in La La Land, top; David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike in the en­thralling A United King­dom

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