Damien Chazelle’s elaborate homage to Golden Age musicals is an old thing in an old package. I think that’s the point.
Is it too nostalgic? Are people going to like it?
I’m glad I waited until about 24 hours later to start this review, because when I walked out of La La Land yesterday I was feeling a little bummed. No one is a bigger fan of Whiplash than me (not only was it my top film of 2014, it could be my favorite film of the decade when all’s said and done), and I had ridiculous expectations for 31-year-old Damien Chazelle’s attempt at a full-fledged, Cinemascope musical. Too ridiculous, I think. Here’s what I couldn’t deny then, and I can’t deny now: La La Land is drop-dead gorgeous. The primary colors pop, the staging is immaculate, and Chazelle’s camera glides along and and around and through it all like he’s done it a thousand times, the culmination of a career churning out factory-assembled studio classics like he’s Stanley Donen or Mark Sandrich.
As a pitch-perfect exercise in Old Hollywood craft, La La Land astounds in its ambition. It looks great, it sounds great, it’s got a pair of winning performances in Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling, and it’s just a wonderful time at the movies. But is it any more than that? Underneath the gloss and the glamour, does it have anything new to say, or is it just an expensive empty suit? And if it doesn’t, does that even matter?
Stone is Mia, a young ingenue looking for her big break. Right now, the closest she can get to working in the movies is as a barista on the Warner Brothers lot. But despite a never-ending string of failed auditions (and worse, soul-crushing callbacks), she hasn’t given up on her dream. Gosling is Sebastian, a gifted jazz pianist who’s also too self-absorbed to sacrifice his artistic cred to play the chintzy set list at his current employer’s lounge; instead, he wants to open his own club, where he can single-handedly save “real jazz” from the youth-repelling oblivion to which it is currently consigned. That both Mia & Seb are traditionally pretty and white, and not exactly in financial dire straits, goes unremarked upon, because in a film like this — the films Chazelle is meticulously aping — all practical considerations get set aside when you’re chasing your dream, and damn the torpedoes if contentedness in your personal life gets in the way of achievement in your professional life.
If you’re sensing a direct through line to Whiplash, you’re not wrong, and it’s not just the bit part for J.K. Simmons. It turns out that this candy-colored, feather-light, genetically-engineered slice of cinematic bliss has similar ideas about “authenticity,” which is somewhat ironic considering the film features a literal flight of fantasy at the Griffith Observatory (a beautiful scene, to be sure). It may be Whiplash’s diametric opposite with regards to tone, but the ending also left me slightly squeamish in a different way.
I thought of a lot of other films while watching La La Land, and not just the ones Chazelle wanted me to, like Singin’ in the Rain or Top Hat or An American in Paris. I thought of New York, New York and One From the Heart, the doomed musical productions from Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, respectively. Both filmmakers wanted to do the same thing as Chazelle in resurrecting a dead genre, but critics were savage, and audiences were baffled. (Perhaps put off by the response, the closest that their contemporary Steven Spielberg has ever gotten to making one is the opening number of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.)
I thought of Hail, Caesar!, where earlier this year the Coen Brothers gave us “No Dames,” a literal showstopper that was as precise in its detail as it was entertaining to watch. But most of all, I thought of The Artist. Do you remember The Artist? Do you remember that it won Best Picture in 2012? You probably don’t. I wasn’t a huge fan of it then; I thought it was a successful experiment, but far too shallow to stand the test of time. If La La Land finds similar Oscar success, will it suffer the same fate, or is its heart-on-its-sleeve style and photogenic American cast (not to mention, having dialogue) all the built-in advantage it needs?
And then I got home, and I kept thinking about it, and I slept on it, and I thought about it some more. I found I couldn’t get certain songs out of my head, like flagship duet “City of Stars,” or the heartfelt “The Ones Who Dream,” delivered by Stone in the third act. (All of the songs are written by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, who aim for Irving Berlin’s moon and land, fittingly, among the stars.) I remembered standout moments of choreography (by Mandy Moore, shout-out to the So You Think You Can Dance heads), and looked at stills from the film, appreciating the painterly cinematography of Linus Sandgren. And I thought about all that Damien Chazelle had to pull off to make the film work, even a little bit.
So I’ll say this: Chazelle directed the hell out of this movie. Every detail, lovingly considered. His greatest achievement here is almost certainly the opening scene, a deliriously ambitious number set amidst a highway traffic jam made to look like one uninterrupted shot, where the drivers all emerge to sing and dance in the bright California sun. (I’d suggest that not being able to top it through the rest of the film both hurts it on first viewing, and helps it with additional viewings.) La La Land has sequences of real beauty, the motion and the editing (Oscar-winner Tom Cross) rising and falling with the music, with the luminous, Bacall-voiced Emma Stone giving a career-best performance at the center of it all. Gosling, now her co-star for the third time (Crazy, Stupid, Love; Gangster Squad), is…handsome? I’m kidding. He’s good. Mostly handsome, but he’s good. Charisma for days and days and days. And he’s really playing the piano. Gosling and Stone aren’t Astaire and Rogers, but they sell it. I cannot fathom the alternate version of this film that still stars Miles Teller.
If anything, Chazelle is so determined to get every shot right — there are numerous long takes to follow the curtain-raiser, but none quite as intricate — that he can’t help but self-plagiarize. An “I whip my camera back and forth” moment at a club is taken straight from the furious climax of Whiplash, and his habit of introducing new locations with a trio of quick detail shots nearly becomes a tic. Characters keep finding excuses to bring up Charlie Parker. But eventually, the line between “Is this right for this film?” and “Is this what filmmakers of the 1950s would do?” blurs entirely, and I was no longer sure how many of Chazelle’s choices were truly his own.
Whether La La Land is ultimately more than its mimicry, if telling a familiar story in a familiar way is all that was needed here, is up to you. But I think I’m beginning to understand its motivations. Gosling’s Sebastian is Chazelle’s analogue, and if their work leads Millennials to flip over to TCM one day and check out On the Town, I think he’d count that as a victory. And, honestly, so would I.