If you’re going to be brave enough to make a two-hour homage to the golden days of the Hollywood musical you’d better make sure you get it right. So many films have fallen into the trap – Frankenweenie, The Man Who Wasn’t There and The Good German are just a few examples of films that have tried so hard so pay tribute to great movies, that they forgot to be a film in their own right. What Damien Chazelle (whiplash) has done here is produce a beautiful, witty, warm homage, but manage to take it in a completely unexpected direction without spoiling the film’s internal logic. It’s fun, yes, but there is a sting in the tail – a nasty sting.
From the opening sequence we know we’re in safe hands. Hundreds of cars are stuck on the freeway, so what else to do for the drivers but to burst into song and dance. It’s brilliantly choreographed and filmed, in what appears to be a single shot. It’s full of joy and sets the scene for the story to come. Somewhere in the traffic jam is Ryan Gosling’s Seb, and Emma Stone’s Mia, and their first meeting is not a romantic one.
Seb is a pianist with a dream – to bring jazz back to the edgy, exciting genre it once was with his own small club. The trouble is he is stuck playing piano in dull cocktail bars for punters who are more interested in their steak. Mia is the classic role in these movies, an aspiring actress, stuck working in the coffee shop the Warner’s lot, and enduring a seemingly endless round of soul-destroying auditions, mostly with directors who barely acknowledge her presence. Her big dream is to put on a one-woman show written about herself.
It gives the pair of them plenty of time to wander around film lots, go to the famous Griffith Park observatory and even to the cinema. There’s a quite lovely sequence where they go on their first date to a lovely old playhouse, the Rialto, to see Rebel Without A Cause. The film breaks during the observatory scene so they go there for real and finish the film themselves – with a song, of course. Later we see the cinema closed up and shut down, looking straight out of an Edward Hopper picture.
While appearing light and fluffy on the outside the film actually takes its themes seriously – what are the sacrifices needed for your art, and more pertinently, are they worth it? Does fulfilling your dream actually make you happy? The currency of Hollywood is fame and money, but are they actually enough?
Having said that it’s also a surprise just how funny it is. An early sequence, where Seb has to play keyboards in an 80s cover band, complete with big red leather jacket and glasses, and is forced to play Mia’s request of I Ran (top tune!) is hilarious, and beautifully played. Talking of music though, neither actor can really sing, but that’s kind of the point – they aren’t polished stars yet, they are two struggling people lost in the swamp of Hollywood.
Overall verdict: There have been many films about the perils of Hollywood, with Mulholland Drive still the best for me, with Sunset Boulevard a short second, but this fits in very nicely into that genre, in a quirky and interesting way. It deserves all the plaudits coming its way, it’s wonderful.
Reviewer: Mike Martin