Real on-screen chemistry is hard to come by. Sometimes you get two actors with strong screen presence but they cancel each other out or run on different rhythms. Even then, you still need a script that works to their talents and a director that completely trusts their actors. But when you get all that right, magical stuff happens.
That on-screen chemistry is like a dance, a charged give and take. So it’s pretty appropriate that the new film of two actors with brilliant, harmonious magnetism – Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone – is a musical. Damien Chazelle’s (Whiplash) La La Land is a love story of old Hollywood, of art and passion, and a love letter to musicals, jazz and dreams. The film follows two dreamers in Los Angeles, Gosling’s pianist Sebastian and Stone’s actress Mia, as they bump into each other across the city and then gradually fall in love. Musicals are, after all, meant to be romantic.
Their connection begins with a simple piano refrain that Mia hears Sebastian playing, breaking away from his required set of Christmas tunes. It’s a refrain that speaks to her, seems to show her what’s inside him, and one that becomes filled with incredible meaning throughout the film. It’s this power of the smaller things that makes it feel different to other musicals. There are really only two big, bold, classic musical-style set pieces – an opening freeway dance and a Hollywood party. These are cinemascope rainbows of people, movement and primary colours that Chazelle glides through in long tracking shots. But as it develops it focuses in on Stone and Gosling, the musical numbers and the film becoming smaller, more intimate and more powerful. The song lyrics might not stick in the head like with other musicals, but it’s the movement of the actors’ bodies, their whole commitment to the performance, and the smaller moments – a hand in a hand, a surprise dinner – that replay in your head.
‘Movie star’ doesn’t mean much these days, but Stone and Gosling are real stars in the same way those of the Hollywood classics La La Land references were – Bogart and Bergman, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire or James Dean. Stone has never been better. There are times when she’s singing or speaking, the camera close up on her face, that are breathtaking, when she makes you feel more than some actors might hope in their whole career. Gosling successfully mixes his charm with an undercurrent of frustration and put-on arrogance, but where you really feel his performance is at the piano. Put these two actors together, and something really special happens – the screen fizzles with their chemistry. You feel like you could just watch them do housework and it would be mesmerising.
This film is a reminder that movies can be magical, uplifting and joyful. There are some problems – such as at some point you might realise how little we know about these characters; beyond him liking jazz and her wanting to act, we know practically nothing. But you probably won’t care, and that’s also a testament to the dazzle of both the actors and the musical numbers. It’s impossible not to get lost in this film. It’s a movie where even a critic stops taking notes because they’re so immersed. And honestly, who doesn’t need a bit of escapism right now?
La La Land is in cinemas from 26th December through Entertainment One.