I saw La La Land a few weeks ago and, though fun, the more I’ve thought about it the less I’ve thought of it. There’s much to admire about its shaggy fastidiousness bringing the movie musical to an aw-shucks shuffle and mumble aesthetic bursting with glitter at the margins. Writer-director Damien Chazelle glides the Steadicam with dancers great and small, dialing up the colors in the smooth cinematography to just shy of Technicolor vibrancy. The songs don’t exactly burst forth in memorable wit or hummable melody, but noodle around with a passive aggressive earworm tendency to quietly wrap a measure or two around the back of the brain. There’s something appealing about sitting in the theater watching it unspool, but little to stick with you beyond the feeling of having seen something largely pleasant, a mostly empty exercise in style and self-satisfaction. But that's not so bad, considering.
It begins with one of the most exuberant curtain raisers in recent memory, pure joy as a traffic jam erupts in dance, buoyant and colorful gestures totally swept up in moving to the beat. The movie ends with an even better sequence: one of the loveliest sustained passages in any movie I’ve seen lately. I held my breath as the film steps into a poignant, melancholy, graceful dream ballet about fleeting moments, about love and loss and the fantasy of what might have been. In between the film isn’t quite as enchanting and transporting, but it’s really trying, you know? Chazelle has traded in cachet gained from the gruff, buzzy, and percussive Oscar-winning drama Whiplash for the chance to make an original movie musical. We don’t get too many of those anymore, let alone evocations of a Jacques Demy style peppered with allusions to MGM’s Freed unit fare all nestled in a quipping romantic comedy (another genre that’s fallen fallow of late).
Like his earlier film it’s an exploration of artists pushing their talents to the limit, unsure whether their passion is enough to get them to the level of success necessary to make a living, let alone becoming a Great. But instead of that film’s dark central relationship – a jockeying for power between a domineering professor and an aggressively ambitious student – this film is a fuzzy and light romance, as charming as can be while still maintaining a simmering striving sadness underneath. This film’s central couple is a pair of dreamers trotting through a fantasy Los Angeles. She wants to be an actress like her studio-era idols. A huge Golden Age Hollywood poster covers one wall of her tiny bedroom in a cramped apartment shared with three other girls, a place to crash between auditions and barista shifts at the Warner Bros. lot. He wants to run a jazz club. In the meantime he’s obsessively hording artifacts from when jazz was king and piecing together savings from small time gigs playing background noise piano in restaurants or New Wave cover bands at shallow parties.
She is Emma Stone. He is Ryan Gosling. They turn up the movie star charm and crackling chemistry as they perform the expected rom-com moves, starting out prickly, jabbing at each other with glowing conversational daggers. They don’t like each other, each quick with an insult. But they dance so swimmingly in sync, a soft shuffle of steps, a sudden graceful motion, a swooping flourish. In true Astaire and Rogers fashion (in spirit, but definitely not in skill) feet tell the real story of feelings. We know they’re meant to be, and soon they’re giving it a go. Their only problem is being young in 2016, a time in which it’s awfully hard to make jazz pianist or glamorous star a career goal. (Not that it was ever easy to succeed in those professions, but it sure was a lot smoother when there was popular demand.) This makes La La Land, a self-consciously colorful and charmingly artificial romantic musical, a bittersweet tale of people who just weren’t made for these times. They bond over artistic passions – he explaining jazz, she taking a backlot tour – and fall in love, before the demands of selling-out start them on separate paths.
Chazelle makes use of his leads’ appealing banter and expressive moves, turning this into a slight two-hander. No time to flesh out others, it is a duet for young talent with enough experience to shoulder the demands of the roles and smooth-enough faces to play striving ingénues and ambitious self-starters. They are figures conjured for genre play, the types we’d expect to find in a movie like this, their movements and behavior dictated by the way a dress should ruffle, the way glitter should float on a puff of breeze, the way a hop-skip-slide should gleam under a lamppost at night. It’s all rather sweet, but narrow. Their pursuit of success (and each other) is the movie’s exclusive interest, crowding an ace supporting cast (fleeting glimpses of Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K Simmons, Finn Wittrock, and others) out of the chance to strut their stuff. And in the end, even their relationship is lopsided – far more interested in his jazz than her acting – and remains vague on their actual progress to career destinations.
The central question for the characters is whether or not they’ll be true to their artistic ambitions – he likes real jazz; she prefers serious roles – or give in to temptation. And maybe choosing one means losing the other, or each other. That their potential sell-out moves – a gig playing fun popular music with a John Legend type (played by the man himself); a role on a series described as Dangerous Minds meets The OC – sound at least as, if not more, fun than their dream art maybe muddies the movie’s point. Gorgeous widescreen colors stretch across the screen, and the film’s protagonists’ swooning, naïve worship of modes of artistic expression fallen from peak popularity (clinging to an ideal that keeps their prospects slim and dusty instead of embracing the actual mess of creating art) is mirrored in the fussy (and sometimes fusty) evocation of genre gone by. I was frustrated by all this inconsistency, but then there’s that final dreamy conclusion that practically lifted me out of my seat. And, hey, it was worth hanging in there after all. Any movie with two great scenes bookending a technically accomplished (if hollow) middle can’t be all bad.