In the first of a new series ahead of next Sunday’s Oscars, the Guardian’s chief film critic urges you to ignore the critical backlash and swoon along with the rest of the world over this gorgeous romantic musical
There is a core group of three movies on the Oscars best picture nominee list with a plausible slam-dunk claim on the title. But I am going for La La Land, produced by Marc Platt, Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz and written and directed by Damien Chazelle. This is the gorgeous romantic musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as Mia and Seb, the smart would-be movie star who falls for the grumpy jazz enthusiast. It is a film that – maybe more than any frontrunner of recent years – is in danger of drowning in its own critical attention and press acclaim, creating successive eddies of contrarian backlash from columnists and late-breaking social media dismissal from cinephiles, who compare it unfavourably with the classic work from Hollywood and France that is their own area of expertise.
This lovely film is more than capable of riding it out and getting the best picture Oscar, though it has to be said there is an interesting comparison and contrast with the 2012 best picture winner: The Artist by Michael Hazanavicius, a superb, lovingly observed revival of the black-and-white silent genre. That, too, was a Golden Age of Hollywood nostalgia picture with a similar romantic dynamic between the male and female leads, and a comparable echo of A Star Is Born. We critics raved joyfully about that, too. But there was a bit of a disconnect between the pundits and public: the moviegoers were not quite so keen to watch a silent movie as we hoped: not as keen as they are to watch an all-singing, all-dancing musical in full glorious colour. (The worldwide gross for The Artist is $133.4m; whereas La La Land is already at $268.3m.) So for what it’s worth, raving about La La Land puts the critic in closer touch with the box office.
La La Land is already becoming a classic on its own terms, and the opening sequence on the traffic-jammed freeway has grabbed hearts everywhere: I wasn’t sure at first, but a second viewing had me swooning and gibbering. It turns out not to be a green-screen confection, but the real thing. Chazelle closed the ramp between LA’s 105 and 110 freeways for a weekend, worked his 150-strong cast in the burning heat with unremitting passion and finally showed them the finished product on video playback monitors as dusk fell, to deafening cheers. What a moment that must have been.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are superb in the roles of Seb and Mia (I can’t imagine Andrew Garfield and Emma Watson – the other names once rumoured to be in the running) and their love affair is wonderfully persuasive. Here again I have to counter the naysayers who are avowedly unhappy with the levels of singing and dancing. For me and for everyone else who loves this film, their professional credentials are just fine: but it is the very fact that they are not slick Broadway hoofers and iron-lunged singers that gives them the humanity and believability. It is a part of their vulnerability. The point is that they are on the outside. They haven’t made it. Yet.
The four seasons of their love affair are played out with such tenderness, extravagance and style. References to YouTube and the ubiquity of the Toyota Prius site it in the 21st century; otherwise this love story could be set in almost any of the last five or six decades. Yet this indeterminacy is cleverly managed and always works in its favour. And perhaps the killer punch is the film’s ending, with its alternative-reality reverie: heart-wrenching, romantic, unbearably sad, yet in such a way that a retrospective glow of something like joy and hopefulness is projected on to the events that led up to it. What a great film La La Land is. Surely the best picture winner.