La La Land
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt
Rated: PG-13 for some language
Runtime: 2 hrs. 8 mins.
Well, hello. Look what’s back. A Hollywood musical complete with dance routines, songs and a feel-happy plot straight out of just about every Hollywood musical created in the mid-20th century.
Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) not only wanted to pay tribute to these musicals, he had ambitions to create a massive production that would pull from the past and generate its own synergy. Mission accomplished.
The trouble is, if you’re not tied emotionally to this glossy, romantic era, you’re in for a long sitting. It’s an old-fashioned musical, pure and simple. Song and dance, baby. Lots of it. The return of Fred and Ginger to the 21st century.
Mia (Emma Stone) is a young actress struggling to break into the business. A barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot, she has dreams of becoming a major screen star. It’s the reason she suffers through awkward auditions and rude behavior by casting directors. She has a dream.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is an aspiring jazz musician who makes his living by playing at restaurants, parties and weddings. His passion for music, however, is from the past — old-style jazz and improvisation. He’s so insistent about playing jazz, he gets fired from his restaurant gig for refusing to play Christmas music. At Christmas.
Mia and Sebastian run into each other among their social circles, and not pleasantly, either. He blows his car horn at her in the opening song number on a Los Angeles freeway. One night, when she hears him play and wants to compliment him, he rudely brushes past her.
Then one bright spring day at a party, they finally meet. He’s playing in an ’80s retro band. She requests the song I Ran by the group Flock of Seagulls. They talk to each other. They walk to their cars together. They sing and dance together. The romance commences.
The romance is hindered, however, by the fact that they’re both committed to success. She produces her play. He takes to the road as a keyboardist for a breaking band. For art’s sake, they must sacrifice each other.
Unfortunately, except for the very creative ending, the story is predictable, a throwback to a simpler time when people loved onscreen performance as much as acting. Was Fred Astaire a great actor? That’s debatable — but boy, could he dance, and that’s why people paid their money.
Can Gosling and Stone set their own high standard of performance as modern-day song and dance partners? The answer is yes and no. They’re not terribly gifted as singers. They do perform some effervescent choreography, including a wonderful routine at the Griffith Observatory. The instrumental jazz is also vibrant. Gosling plays the piano as if he’s possessed. His featured bands are fire reborn.
This means that La La Land has some high moments and some rough sledding: in the story, the songs and the singing. Still, the film seems to catch fire late when the music becomes less attached to old Hollywood and jazz steps forward.
I know this film won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it has its moments, and the recurring musical variations of Mia and Sebastian’s theme song are beautiful in and of themselves. It’s just that Gosling and Stone as performers can’t quite keep this behemoth on its marks.
Still, if you really love old glitzy big-screen musicals, drink this one in. It’s a rarity among current film productions. I doubt you’ll see another one like this anytime soon. Give Chazelle credit for giving bones and soul to an old, old art form and doing it with a great sense of style. This one reminds us of what Hollywood used to be. Not quite up to the old masters, but good enough to remind us that soft-shoe song and dance can still be fun.