A throwback this substantial and earnest in its attempt to revivify a long-dead subgenre would have earned our attention regardless; but one this well-made and ultimately powerful, has—in spite of its weaknesses—managed to earn the effusiveness of its praise.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
With Ryan Gosling (Sebastian), Emma Stone (Mia), and John Legend (Keith)
To begin with, La La Land, the second real movie directed by Whiplash wunderkind and Grand Piano screenwriter, Damien Chazelle, lives up fully to its reputation as one of 2016's best achievements. It is energetic, and undeniably alive; fitfully, it's even honest-to-God glorious. But hype is called hype for a reason, and it is not exactly perfect. Its energy gets deployed a little randomly (and is burnt through too quickly, if only to save its finest effort for last). Its liveliness can be found mostly in a Hollywood melodrama so schematic that it escapes pure boilerplate solely in the sense that it ends upon bittersweetness, rather than all-out triumph. And when it comes to the glories, they tend to come in big, unconnected lumps. The few overarching flaws in the film's design are obvious enough that you wonder how they ever found their way into its foundations in the first place—particularly when the individual elements the thing is made of are, in themselves, so generally exquisite. But it remains an exceptional movie—in 2016, it's a totally unique one—and, if you wanted the short version, there it is.
Now, the plot Chazelle's given us here is simple enough that we don't need to spend more than a few sentences to describe it. In Los Angeles, you see, there live a man and woman—namely Sebastian, who worships jazz as a deity (you know, just in case you missed that "written and directed by Damien Chazelle" screen credit), and Mia, who wants to be an actress, but is currently spending her days behind the counter at the Starbucks on the Warners lot. Sebastian and Mia collide, and—eventually—they wind up falling in love. Thus bound, they pursue their high-flying dreams of artistic fulfillment together. But when they suffer setbacks that echo back into their relationship, it becomes an open question whether they can keep ahold of their dreams—or each other.
But, boy, am I ever burying the lede: La La Land, of course, is a musical about these two lovers—and a musical of a certain type, at that, a conscious throwback to the swaggering, phantasmogoric musicals of the 1950s and 60s, and such things have never needed especially convoluted plots.
Pictured: an important plot point.
It's not like it's a bad plot, anyway; and it's surely not bad at all in the telling. Obviously, it could have been; in some of the hands which Chazelle actually considered, it borders on a metaphysical certainty that it would've been. (Emma Watson? Miles Teller? It's only hard to say who'd have been worse: the one without personality, or the one whose personality suggests at the least an unpleasant monomania, if not a looming threat of date-rape.)
Fortunately, in the hands Chazelle actually set to work on Sebastian and Mia, it's quite tolerably great. Take, for example, the romantic dramedy right at the heart of it: it is crushingly inevitable that our starry-eyed lovers will get together; yet Chazelle is patient and playful, knocking around our expectations of what a meet-cute ought to be—Mia and Sebastian's first encounter involves rude gestures in L.A. traffic; and even their second is cut brutally short by brusque indifference. But Chazelle knows he can nurture his characters' curious gravity, rather than jam them together from the get-go, and that's because he's got Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling—absolutely everything this film requires them to be, and (speaking frankly) somewhat more. Intoxicating together, they're even great individually—which is good, because the one even mildly unconventional thing Chazelle does with their story is to spend a lot of time with them as individuals, long before they manage to have their first real conversation together. Indeed, we begin the movie with Mia, and it takes a while before we double back to see how Sebastian's own shitty life has been going.
Unaccountably, the jazz musician has failed to find success.
So Stone has a lot of opportunity to sell her wounded bird trying to fly, and she does so with an unerring sense of decency and intelligence, which means that Mia arguably winds up one of the more unique leads you're likely to find in any Hollywood melodrama. As for Gosling—God bless Gosling—he proves that 2016 really was the year he finally got out of that long-term coma, cutting up his typical sad-eyed Angeleno with (a more subdued version) of the self-delusion and physical comedy that made The Nice Guys such a joy to watch. (In fact, Gosling's Sebastian borders upon the outright miraculous. Presented with a character who comes across as nothing less than a parody of the self-righteous asshole you conjure up when you hear the words "jazz lover," Gosling actually manages to make him a capital-R Romantic figure, and even likeable—more importantly, you don't recoil in disbelief that Mia likes him, too.)
And yet it's still together that they shine the brightest: Gosling and Stone are inutterably charismatic in the way old-fashioned movie stars are supposed to be—making a perfect pair, then, for such an aggressively old-fashioned affair. Well—give or take their bootstrapped talents for singing and dancing, respectively. They're better than you or I; they're less than great; and we can start dealing with La La Land, The Throwback Choreographed Musical, right about now.
I don't know whether I would like La La Land better or worse if I got every last one of its little references and homages to the musicals of years past. But even walking in, without resort to any particularly encyclopedic knowledge of Old Hollywood song-and-dance movies, it's obvious that La La Land's single most desperately-pursued goal is to persuade you to accept it as a modern-day successor to their legacy. Why, its very first frame is a Goddamn advertisement for CinemaScope. (It spends a moment in that boxy old-school Academy ratio, before stretching the boundaries of the image to fill the frame.) It's reminiscent enough of the superior (and more defensible) opening to 1956's otherwise extremely-inferior The Girl Can't Help It—a movie, you'll recall, that wasn't preceded in the year of its release by three hundred other movies that were also shot in CinemaScope, only made by people who never realized that using one of the two default aspect ratios of modern motion pictures could be used as a point of nostalgia. (Now, obviously, we can be a bit more technical, if merely to head off your objection: La La Land does use an unmatted 2.55:1 ratio, not typical of latterday 'Scope productions, which usually settle on 2.35:1.)
And don't get me the least bit wrong, either: it's a perfectly cute, perfectly cheeky gesture, and it works just about as well as any opening gambit could. It does exactly what it needs to do, and that's to set the tone: if you can imagine the movie Quentin Tarantino would make, were he a pleasant humanist, rather than a dickhead—and were he an unbearable superfan of old movies that delivered emotion and athleticism by way of stylized dancing, rather than stylized violence—then, my friend, you can very easily imagine what Chazelle's up to here.
Though to imagine a QT musical is, perhaps, to give it slightly too much credit—Chazelle is no Tarantino, not yet—and I promise, I'll get to the criticism in a minute. In the meantime, there are still enough things about the picture that are basically flawless, or at least close enough to flawless, that they've earned the right to be mentioned first.
So: just for starters, there's the way the film looks, beginning with Linus Sandgren's aforementioned 2.55:1 cinematography—besides embracing 35mm, and the physical properties of the lens, with a gusto rarely matched (because just watching the way straight lines curve inside a 'Scope frame puts a big meaningless smile on my stupid face), he manages another, even better trick, which is a replication of three-strip Technicolor's properties on modern filmstock that is, of course, immediately discernible from the real thing, but still smacks of a labor of love. Driven with something like genius, Sandgren even gets more than halfway there—David Wasco and Mary Zophres' bold solid-color production and costume design choices help a lot—and "halfway back to 195X," in 2016, is so much closer than I'd ever have expected virtually anybody to get. (But I can't imagine it could hurt to point out that Wasco has been a frequent Tarantino collaborator. Even then, I don't know if anything Wasco's ever done could compete with the best moments of La La Land, which are the moments where realism takes a vacation.)
Color—wondrous color—underlies some even more wondrous choreography, and that's where La La Land truly soars, beginning in its very first scene, and very first first song, a paean to L.A. called "Another Day of Sun." It lets you know, right off the bat, that 1)La La Land will be a movie about the possibilities of Hollywood, as well as its pitfalls, though it will probably pull its punches (for good and for ill); and 2)Chazelle and choreographer Mandy Moore have some astonishingly great ideas, and know how to make a song-and-dance musical that is stop-your-damn-heart thrilling. (I'll leave it to others to congratulate Chazelle on the long-take of drivers in a traffic jam decamping from their automobiles to dance and cavort on the freeway. Instead, the moment I recognized La La Land as something genuinely special was in the sequence's very final moments, when the impossible depth of Chazelle and Moore's staging became apparent: a line of dancers, standing atop their cars, stretching out into the distance for a solid half-mile.)
And only now do we start to find some problems! Because La La Land never, ever gets this ecstatically big again. So Mia gets a song about how lame awesome Hollywood parties are, itself a small masterpiece of choreography; and the couple frolicks through Hollywood memories at Griffith Park (which, I'll admit, leads to the film's most individually sublime moment, a literal waltz through the stars); and the film saves a legitimate wallop of a showstopper for last, summing up the movie—while one of our lovers movingly wishes that their movie was slightly, but crucially, different. Yet every successive gesture, up until that finale, gets smaller, until La La Land threatens to turn into an indie romance with the occasional softly-sung expression of sadness and hope, rather than the flabbergastingly grandiose musical it promised to be.
Not that "inconsistently musical" puts it too far from the 1950s films it descends from (quite the opposite), but it's still a very noticeable thing—as is the fact that no individual song within La La Land achieves greatness on its own merits. Perhaps none ever had the chance to, thanks to being bound to a pair of non-singer/non-dancers in the leading roles, whom Chazelle, wisely or not, avoids pushing past their limits (or even pushing them at all). He tends to rely instead upon their endless waltzing (increasingly repetitive, with only the pop-art surrealism of the backdrops to save it) or upon Justin Hurlitz' often-wordless score (also increasingly repetitive, with only the energy of the compositions—and the emotion we've attached to the characters—to save that).
That repetition surely comes with a whiff of intention—Sebastian's melancholic "City of Stars" is nothing short of the thematic spine of the film—but when La La Land isn't in the business of repeating its notes, it's usually because it's in the midst of a diegetic number calculated to annoy you with Damien Chazelle's unattractive musical snobbery. That's how the single best song in the whole movie is A-Ha's "Take On Me"—played by Sebastian during his professional low point, a gig as a keytar man for a lousy 80s cover band. Predictably enough, La La Land explicitly treats "Take On Me" as if it were a total piece of shit—as opposed to, you know, the only song in the film anybody will be still be singing ten years from now. It's forgivable, of course, in the sense that the film often takes on the subjective point-of-view of its male lead, and that its male lead is a ballsack.
But then, that points us in the direction the subtler failure of La La Land: when the narrative practically demands we see Mia as first among equals, it's slightly odd that La La Land spends so much time with Sebastian and his musical follies—in sharp contrast to its constitutional inability to give the first damn about Mia's struggles with her artform. (And that's how something like thirty minutes of La La Land is devoted to Sebastian and his involvement with John Legend's slick, overproduced neo-jazz combo, while something like thirty seconds is devoted to Mia's one-woman show. I offer an open challenge for anyone, including Emma Stone or Damien Chazelle, to even tell me what her show was about.)
And yet! If I've made La La Land sound even momentarily unpleasant, then I have really failed to do my job; but I think I can get away with it in this case, because virtually no film this year has strengths more self-evident. There are a good dozen moments where La La Land could be better; there are no moments where it's actually bad; and there are a hundred moments, big and small, where it makes you hold your breath or shed a tear; and these make it necessary to accept its various little sins. They are, after all, only sins of omission. In other words, the biggest problem with La La Land is merely that I liked it so much, I wanted more of what it did best. But, Lord—surely it offers up enough!