La La Land doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It has the bones, the soul of a lavish, 1950s Hollywood musical, but the muscle and flesh of a modern, minor rom com. As it stands, it exists in an uncomfortable netherworld between The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Sing Street.
Director Damien Chazelle definitely knows his music. His 2013 screenplay, Grand Piano, is a thriller in which a whiz pianist must play a complex classical piece perfectly…or die. His debut feature, Whiplash, received countless critical plaudits (including from me—#4 on my list of 2014’s best) and was whip-smart about jazz and musical obsessives. Chazelle is the first filmmaker I can think of to make great modern music the stuff of feverish nightmares.
In La La Land, he dials back the narrative intensity to allow for more breathing space—and ostensibly for musical numbers. Ryan Gosling plays a jazz pianist dissatisfied with the current state of the Los Angeles jazz scene. He wants a jazz club of his own to bring the music back to its roots and strip it of its banal, modern trappings. Emma Stone plays an actress down on her luck; her auditions of late aren’t going well, and she wonders if she’ll ever make it big. The two meet and slowly fall in love. Are their dreams compatible? Can they achieve their desires and still make it as a couple?
Look, I’m perfectly willing to forgive a thin narrative in a musical. C’mon, Singin’ in the Rain isn’t known for its labyrinthine plotting; every plot point pitches a musical number that Gene Kelly and company knock out of the park. La La Land certainly begins feeling pressed from the same mould, with an elaborate musical number staged in the middle of an L.A. traffic jam. It continues with a lovely dance sequence, as Stone and Gosling tap and dance around a lamppost with the city lights in the background.
Well, if I’m being honest, I sensed something amiss during that initial opening number. Sure, it has some nice, long takes, but the camera swoops and swishes around so much that the music video effect is the same. Was Chazelle going for glitzy razzmatazz, à la Moulin Rouge!, or a heightened realism, like Rent? I don’t think he’s sure, and the film never quite strays from this hesitancy. It’s almost kinda one, and almost kinda the other, and not always at the same time.
Anyway, Chazelle doesn’t maintain the musical flow, and there are long stretches in the middle of the film where La La Land seems to forget it’s a musical. And when it’s not a musical, Chazelle rests into a fairly standard backstage groove. There’s a montage of Stone’s unsuccessful auditions, Gosling playing banal music he doesn’t believe in; many Paul Harvey-esque ‘the rest of the story’ pre-fame moments.
Now look, I’m not saying this ‘standard’ stuff is without interest. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are two of my favourite actors, and they kept me engaged all the way through. Both have impossibly magnetic screen presences, so if they decided to stand in front of a camera and recite prime numbers, I’d watch it all day. But the narrative containing these two characters and the musical numbers don’t really seem to fuse. There is one sequence late in the movie, a glorious parade of expressionistic dancing on elaborate sets, that shows what La La Land could have been if Chazelle had the balls to just go all in.
Regardless, the film is technically astonishing throughout. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is the standout, featuring some of the most stunning lighting changes since Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. The music itself is delightful—even the modern number with John Legend, which supposedly gives Gosling’s character a case of the Mondays. La La Land is an impeccably crafted, entertaining picture.
I just wish there was more there there. It’s not as good as Whiplash, but has a helluva lot of fun trying to be.