If there is a single movie genre I was raised on, it’d have to be classic musicals— of the “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music” variety. “La La Land” is perhaps the closest equivalent Hollywood has produced in years, which made it an immediate must-see for me.
Set in modern times (but laced with charmingly anachronistic flourishes throughout), “La La Land” tells the story of jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) as they endeavor to establish careers in the brutally competitive Los Angeles entertainment scene. Despite its familiar underpinnings, this story is gratifyingly free of irony—this is the kind of movie where people pop from their cars in the middle of LA gridlock to perform spontaneous song-and-dance routines.
In the skillful directorial grasp of Damien Chazelle—best known for his acclaimed drumming drama “Whiplash”—“La La Land” is a burst of color and dynamism, and unquestionably one of the best-directed movies this year. Creative cinematography abounds: just to name one example, an early musical number is shot from a panning GoPro camera in the middle of a swimming pool. As the film unfolds, Chazelle delivers memorable sequence after memorable sequence—a ballroom dance sequence in a starry planetarium, a Rodgers-and-Hammerstein-style meet-cute on a bluff overlooking Los Angeles, a perky girls’-night-out anthem, a tragically beautiful piano duet, and much more.
Musically speaking, the film’s best song is the haunting piano motif that serves as a romantic theme for Sebastian and Mia—followed closely by Stone’s “Audition” solo aria toward the movie’s end. Neither Gosling nor Stone is particularly talented on the singing front, and none of this film’s tunes are blow-the-doors-down standouts like Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream.” That being said, both leads—particularly Stone—are fantastic actors, striking just the right emotional notes throughout a story filled with ups and downs. They also share strong chemistry, as anyone familiar with their previous pairing in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” already knows.
Though I hate to tip the film’s hand too much, it bears mention that “La La Land” is not quite the burst of exuberance its marketing suggests. (In an ironic inversion, Chazelle’s grittier “Whiplash” had a much more fairytale-esque ending than anything here.) In some ways, this is clearly an effort to bridge the romanticism of classic musicals with the realities of life, and it’s not altogether unwarranted in context. “La La Land” doesn’t trade in screwball misunderstandings that could be resolved via an honest conversation, but takes its characters’ dilemmas—at what point do you trade dreams for lasting vocations? at what point do you sacrifice your own dreams because you care about someone else’s?—rather more seriously.
At the same time, though, there are moments of tonal bleakness in this film that don’t feel quite deserved. It’s one thing to put characters through the emotional wringer; it’s quite another to force them into inorganic narrative outcomes. As beautiful as it is, the third act of “La La Land” doesn’t quite strike the proper storytelling balance between saccharinity and undeserved tragedy.
“La La Land” deserves the compositional awards it will almost certainly pick up, and I wish my enthusiasm didn’t have to be somewhat qualified. The first two acts are positively brimming with flair and panache, and (even in the face of a story that occasionally doesn’t do their talent justice) Gosling and Stone are a phenomenal central pair. If you’ve ever watched Turner Classic Movies and thought wistfully that “Hollywood just doesn’t make ‘em like that anymore,” “La La Land” will definitely help fill the void.
If nothing else, I hope it’s just the first of more musicals to come.
Despite moments of inconsistent tone, “La La Land” is a mostly satisfying (and technically breathtaking) revival of the musical genre.
Normalized Score: 5.8