This review was previously published in The National.
Wunderkind writer-director Damien Chazelle made quite an impact with his drumming drama Whiplash last year, marking him out as one of the premiere fresh-faced filmmakers marked for even greater things to come.
This follow-up plays around in a similar attention-grabbing sandbox in which themes of big dreams and striving for greatness sit. But at the same time it couldn’t be anymore tonally different to that most intense of cinematic musical experiences: this aims for brightly lit, all-singing, all-dancing fun and pulls it off with elegant panache.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who has moved from small-town Nevada to the bright lights of Hollywood, working shifts in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, watching famous actresses coming in to buy iced coffees and dreaming she was in their shoes.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist eking out a living tinkling generic holiday tunes in a local bar, harbouring dreams of owning a nightclub where people appreciate the purest form of his beloved genre – that, to his dismay, is slowly dying.
Will Mia and Sebastian meet? Of course they will. It’s the stuff of a bygone era of Hollywood musicals with which Chazelle is clearly enamoured. The essence of Golden Age Hollywood – Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire together in Swing Time, Gene Kelly singin’ and dancin’ in the rain – runs throughout its at once upbeat and melancholic veins.
What’s really effective is how it morphs from being a romance about movies to a movie about romance itself – paying homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo; Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause; and, in its signature slow piano tune, Mia & Sebastian’s Theme, it tips its gorgeously tailored hat to Casablanca’s famous As Time Goes By.
Once Mia and Sebastian get together – following a song and dance overlooking the twinkling LA cityscape, of course – it becomes a question of whether their besotted love will stay that way forever or if things will fizzle out or be ripped apart due to circumstance? We root for them, partly because of Stone and Gosling’s lovely, easy-going chemistry, but largely because that’s the framework in which the film positions its players.
Chazelle is having fun with the form we’ve come to expect, playfully diving into the deep end one minute while refusing to dip in a toe the next. He punctuates and accentuates the romance with clever, well-choreographed musical sequences that should put a spring in the step of all but the most ardent haters of movies in which characters burst into song, just because.
Does it get caught up in being a bit too arch and self-aware for its own good? Perhaps. But this dreamy Technicolour musical extravaganza is voraciously exuberant, unashamedly romantic filmmaking with heart, charm and ambition to spare.
“Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem.” Such dreaming should be applauded.