Original movie musicals are so rare one should cherish them deeply, even if they’re flawed. Not that Damien Chazelle’s newest musical, La La Land, will have trouble being cherished. Its stars, after all, are Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, two performers known for sharing some of the most electric chemistry the screen has seen in at least a couple decades. People going in to swoon at the sight of these two will not be disappointed. La La Land does so many things, and does so many of them so right, that I can wholeheartedly recommend people seeing it, even if I do have one big reservation with the movie as a whole.
To put it simply, La La Land is a love-letter to the kind of movie musicals that don’t get made anymore. Fittingly, it tells the story of two young and beautiful people falling in and out of love. Stone is the struggling actress who dreams of becoming a star, though the way things are going for her she’d be satisfied with just getting a role. Gosling is the self-serious jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own jazz club, one that will be true to the legacy of the genre. Like in those classic Hollywood musicals, the two don’t get along at first, then fall in love, then things get complicated before the grand finale.
The whole thing is one big throwback. From the font of title card, to the technicolor cinematography, and art direction and costumes that suggest the fifties despite the movie not being a period piece. You might call it a gimmick, but aesthetics play a role in the movie’s narrative. As the story progresses, our heroes go from the magic of falling in love to the problems of making a relationship work. Dreams become harder to achieve and their possibilities start to dwindle. At that point, the movie too moves away from the big production numbers and recedes into more crude, realistic film making.
You can think of this shift as a weakness in the script, or you can think of it as an instance of form reflecting content. The romance, the singing, the dancing, that’s all in the dreaming, in the longing, in the possibility of a brighter future. It’s a deeply Romantic sentiment befitting a director like Damien Chazelle, who could be described as a passion-obsessed Romantic. Judging by the two movies of his that I’ve seen, Chazelle finds the idea of being too passionate to maintain a relationship incredibly Romantic. I mean romantic as in falling in love, sure, but also in the 19th-century-poet sense of the word.
There is no boy-meets-girl romance in Chazelle’s previous movie Whiplash, but the passionate fury with which its protagonist drummed himself to ambiguous death makes for a story Keats and Shelley would have approved of. This inflexible view of work-life balance works better in the melancholic conflicts of La La Land than it did in the reductively masculine Whiplash, but it still doesn’t sit well with me. “Sacrificing one’s self for one’s art” is the insistent message that has weakened the resolution of Chazelle’s movies for me, despite both of them featuring incredibly ambitious finales. In Whiplash, it simplified the psychology of its villain to oblivion, and in La La Land, tries to sell a bittersweet ending the movie doesn’t quite earn.
I’m afraid Chazelle is a director I will never be able to love, but at least he’s one that I can admire. He clearly feels nothing but love for the musical genre, and who can blame him? Who can watch Rogers and Astaire dancing cheek to cheek, or Gene Kelly splashing in the rain, and not be transported into a space of pure joy? Even though it has waned considerably in popularity, the musical is one of the purest and most effective genres in the cinematic language. The movie screen is perfectly equipped to capture the nuances of a good singer who also happens to be a great performer, and it is even better at capturing movement and dancing. I don’t know about you, but thinking back to the best moments in musical movie history, I always go back to dancing bodies.
The dance sequences, unsurprisingly, are when La La Land works best. Some people have complained that Gosling and Stone are not the best singers -and they’re not- but that doesn’t quite matter. Who cares about adequate singing when you have one of the most charismatic couples in recent Hollywood history, and when the chemistry they share extends so beautifully into their dancing. Gosling and Stone aren’t the most skilled dancers individually, but they are remarkable dancing partners, capable of carrying Chazelle’s ambitious homages to classic dance moments from The Band Wagon and Singin’ in the Rain. These are the moments that make La La Land truly shine, the moments that will fill you up with joy.
But truth is, joy isn’t the only emotion the movie wants to elicit from its audience, and that is sadly where it fumbles. Again, I will go back to Chazelle’s ambitious final number, and without spoiling what happens, I will say that while I recognized it as a moment that should sweep me off my feet and overflow me with emotion, I didn’t quite felt that way. I admired the audacity of making a musical of this kind in 2016, and of ending it in this particular way, but I wasn’t crying. Chazelle’s touch, to me, is most effective when it’s at its lightest. When he sits back and lets two fabulous performers express themselves through dance. That’s when things are cooking.
Grade: 7 out of 10