‘La La Land’ isn’t a Good Musical, but it’s Pretty Damn Charming

3/5 Stars

La La Land (2016)  is a fun, heartwarming, and at times visually stunning musical, with fine performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Writer/Director Damien Chazelle flaunts his film chops as he overtly references many of Hollywood’s greatest musical hits, but misses the mark as his work pales in comparison to the history he taps into.

Stone and Gosling respectively star as Mia and Sebastian, two struggling artists with dreams of Los Angeles success—Sebastian wants to own a Jazz Club, and Mia wants to be a movie star. The two cross paths after a delightful musical number set in the middle of LA traffic, and the film takes its time in predictably nudging its two stars closer and closer together. They fall in love, work towards their dreams, and along the way we’re peppered with quick musical numbers and gorgeous visuals, all variously invested in ‘movie magic.’

The film’s main issue stems from the check it writes the audience at its beginning. “Another Day of Sun,” the first number, is a strong signal from Chazelle that this movie won’t mess around. He pulls out all the film nerd stops: anamorphic lenses, long takes, and creative camera moves that smell strongly of early Paul Thomas Anderson, and hint at a reverence for Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick. In short, the opening tells you this is going to be a kick-ass musical.

Yet on the basis of genre-defining characteristics, namely singing and dancing, the movie falls short. Stone and Gosling do a perfectly fine and charismatic job of sustaining a compelling relationship, yet their charms can’t overcome the fact that the musical numbers meant to carry their characters’ emotions are unsatisfying and unmemorable. The singing is mediocre (incongruous with the rest of the film whether intentional or not, Gosling’s vocals in particular stick out in a bad way), the dancing is cute, though flat and uninteresting, and the songwriting is bland and forgettable. Still the film colorfully glides along, as references to Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and the work of Busby Berkley fly by, thorns in the side of those who recall the glorious spectacle of dance and song those films carry. La La Land is so preoccupied with sparking the memory of cinephiles that it forgets to take care of itself on the basics of movie musicals.

Chazelle attempts to make up for this lack with big, bold, extraverted camera moves. With wild abandon he plunges his camera under water, whips it too and fro, spins it furiously, and vaults it high. Interesting, to be sure, and a signifier of technical skill—yet flashy and fluffy, with little thoughtful alliance between form and content. Though the pleasure of spectacle has value in and of itself, such a strategy can only carry a film so far, and when unbuoyed by musical performances to match, the distance carried is middlingly short.

The film further faults on an ideological level, eschewing the implied-by-omission “messiness” of jazz’s ties to black history for a “clean” (so clean it’s sparkling white) version of jazz more fitting for the film’s narrative purpose: bringing together two beautiful Caucasian people. In this way La La Land blithely supports the ideological trash heap that is Hollywood filmmaking, while including just enough side characters of color to barely quell the tide of racial criticism.

That’s not to say this film is without merit—Stone and Gosling deliver perfectly fine performances (carrying a script that leaves one yearning for the verbal edge of Chazelle’s previous work) amid an extravaganza of visuals that will likely force a smile on your face. Tonally the film is pitched perfectly to please anyone, and its awareness of romantic cheese saves it from devolving into a cloying, overbearing emotional mess. Certain sequences will leave you breathless, one involving a planetarium comes to mind, and doubtless you will fall in love with La La Land’s leads as much as their characters do for each other.

However, as far as musicals go, this is a weak offering. Chazelle is quite good at incorporating (shoehorning?) images and themes from Hollywood Golden Age classics in his own work, yet he struggles when attempting to adopt their musical brilliance and choreographical prowess. Ryan Gosling can twirl around as many streetlamps as he’d like, he cannot help but remind that others have done it far better.

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