La La Land, Venice opener

It wasn’t much of a surprise that the 73rd Venice Film Festival cancelled its opening night party on the Lido in deference to the victims of the Italian earthquake victims. The oldest, most venerable festival in the world invariably makes sure it has valid connections to the world at large. After all, it was invented by Mussolini not just to show good films from all over the world but to headline Italian movies he didn’t object to. Nowadays the festival is decidedly left of centre, thanks largely to its director Alberto Barbera, who studiously tries to be fair to all political persuasions but clearly likes the radical part of the show best. This year, however, he offered a rare Hollywood musical as his opener — the eagerly awaited Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone starrer La La Land.

Gosling and Stone have worked together before and with writer-director Damien Chazelle too. But after the highly successful Whiplash no one Chazelle to make a musical. It is, though, pretty unorthodox stuff, bursting into song and dance when you least expect but mainly concentrating on two things. These are the drama itself between the two leads and a semi-satire of the musical conventions of the past. Does the mix work? Not entirely. But it is lively enough to keep most audiences happy, especially at a time when fun in the cinema usually involves vast expenditure of special effects, and heroes rather bigger than life. Here they are not.

Stone is an aspiring actress in LA but temperamentally too vulnerable to deal with the savagery of a series of unsuccessful auditions and screen tests. He is an aspiring jazz piano player who believes in the good old days when jazz was not a watered down branch of pop and rock. They fall for each other and, one way or another,get through their career dilemmas with some elan. She at last has a success as an actress, and he gives up a well-paid job with a successful group who don’t play proper jazz to become the owner of a small club which does.

I have to say that the lively Stone is the true star of the picture, acting with serious intent and singing and dancing at least decently. Somehow her personality shines through even during the film’s more awkward moments whereas Gosling, smooth and sexy as ever, has all the charm of a defective refrigerator when asked to portray romance with the lightness of touch of a Cary Grant. Stone definitely keeps the on-off romance going, and Chazelle wings his unorthodox way through the story with obvious pleasure but at least some sense of the darker nature of Hollywood and the La La Land of showbiz. The film looks good, sounds good and, if you’re not too fussy, it might make you feel good too.