Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, JK Simmons and John Legend
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Rated ‘PG’13’ for some language, dancing, music and entitled whiny white people
Runtime 128 minutes
La La Land is the musical of the millennial. It’s packed with angst, a complete lack of communication, entitlement, no real conflict to speak of and a wistful, sugary nostalgia for the way things used to be – now priced out, of course. It is in love with itself, for good and bad. The colors pop with the crispness of an iPhone commercial. The music burrows into your brain. The actors soar through the stars, at times literally, as against an observatory show and other times waltzing along the streets with the painted murals of old one named legends – Bogart, Taylor, Dean.
The film begins on a hot, sunny day with that common of Los Angeles sights: a traffic jam. Quickly, the denizens of the cars jump out and burst into song like that REM video. Yes, it may be winter, but it’s still a sunny day and anything can happen. What ends up happening is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) meets Mia (Emma Stone) in that same traffic jam and…promptly flips her off.
Well, the boy can’t like the girl the first time out.
This is the paragraph where I, knowledgable writer, tell you, dear reader, about all the influences director Damien Chazelle used to somehow erase the 60 year period from when the musical reigned supreme. I’m supposed to namedrop someone like Busby Berkeley to establish my credentials. I can’t. I know little and can only say that Chazelle manages to marry the mumblecore and the musical genres (fitting, given Gosling’s singing style) into a post-musical film that has some music, but far more whining than you may expect.
The central conflict, should it be called that, is centered on the old belief that personal happiness comes at professional success, and vice versa. As if your dreams and your heart are somehow incompatible. It is a medicine we are constantly fed, one that undoubtedly replicates itself year after year and fuels its sacrifices, the young, the hungry, the dreamers. I do not buy into that belief. Yet, the way to both is that dreaded of all things: actually talking to one another. All the problems between Gosling and Stone are easily remedied with even a simple text message, though certainly longer conversations would do. As with all musicals, the dancing and singing are the only times anyone is being honest with not only themselves, but the ones they love. Unfortunately for La La Land, those whimsical moments when everything seems possible and emotions are ratcheted up to a fever pitch feel few and far between as if it weren’t a musical but rather a movie with musical interludes. The opening number is a wonder of choreography and camerawork and sets the mood. The second, chirped by Mia’s fellow wannabes is a fun little ditty that ends abruptly and goes nowhere. Flash. Bang. Fireworks. Calm.
Gosling and Stone are great actors. Beautiful and talented, they command the screen. Yet they are badly miscast: they are neither singers nor dancers. For all the highs La La Land hits during the music, they never reach their apex because neither of the leads are Kelly or Rogers. Gosling mumbles his way through, a husky crooner with a Blue Valentine edge, while Stone chirps along, fading into the background. Thankfully, there’s a light to shine on her.
Yet there are many things to love in La La Land. The chemistry between Mia and Sebastian is never in doubt. In a year so full of darkness and despair, a winter pea-coat season lasting twelve months, the palette is a July 4th celebration of hues that jump off the screen and smother you in their primary color-ladened arms. The love may be grey, but the costumes are always crisp and defined. And for all of Gosling and Stone’s shortcomings as dancers, the camerawork shows them in all their ‘trying so hard’ glory. The quintessential ‘I don’t like you but I really like you’ song and dance number is shot in one continuous take, like Broadway, against the Mulholland sunrise. The camera hovers and lingers, watching; and the actors get to work. We can never fault them their enthusiasm, even while we snicker at their skill.
If nothing else, there is a scene at the end that threatens to be maudlin and is absolutely manipulative, that works all the better for it. Perhaps I am a sucker for the road not taken, to see beyond a choice to all the other choices it would lead to and finally realize – if only for a brief flash between heartbeats – where I may have been. If it’s a case of having one’s bittersweet cake and eating it, too, then so be it. The film exists solely, entirely, for that moment and Chazelle, better than most, sticks the landing.
There will be awards aplenty. It has already begun. I am sure Damien Chazelle did not set out to make an awards winner, but he has. This is a musical about Hollywood, and if there is one thing Hollywood loves most, its itself. Every single member of all the major committees will see La La Land and immediately remember what it was like for them coming up from the bottom. It’s a little rosy; it’s definitely La La. Maybe on the next time around, they’ll remember that there is more to life and romance than just a song and dance.