As the film at the glitziest time in the cinematic calendar, it’s difficult to watch La La Land without preconceptions. It’s simultaneously the clear favourite for the Best Picture Oscar starring two icons of the new Hollywood, and something of an indie triumph, the passion project of a rising star in an unusual and often uncommercial genre. What emerges on screen and what director Damien Chazelle has discussed in interviews, is an attempt to transpose the values and style of a classic musical to the twisting contradiction that is contemporary Los Angeles, that most iconic of US cities. It’s a film inspired by both the standout classics of the genre (Singing in the Rain) and more exotic fare (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort). In so many ways, what La La Land ends up being is Hollywood’s love letter to itself, a celebration of the old ways of doing things, of old buildings, of the style of a previous era. The most blatant example of this is the film being shot in CinemaScope, with colours popping off the screen as a result. In a rare piece of self-awareness however, it also recognises that this world is rapidly being lost, with the Rialto cinema that is the backdrop for a date scene later shown closed, lost to the inevitable forward march of progress that defines Western cities and perhaps LA most of all.
The film’s tone and chief subject are established early, with the opening shot featuring an elevated miles-long traffic jam that suddenly explodes into song and dance, Chazelle viewing LA’s infamous gridlock as something to be celebrated rather than endured. It’s a skewed version of reality that is the musical’s stock in trade, but this altered perception extends into the film’s drama; while they are portrayed as struggling artists, neither Mia, Emma Stone’s aspiring actress/barista, nor Sebastian, Ryan Gosling’s jobbing jazz pianist, seem particularly uncomfortable. She lives in a spacious, light LA apartment with three friends who keep dragging her to parties, while he continues to get jobs despite refusing to toe the line and just play what he’s told to. The closest either character gets to any sort of realistic struggle is shots of Sebastian’s unpaid bills, but even these never have any consequence. Of course La La Land is far from the only film to have its protagonists live in a fairytale bubble, but their relatively pleasant lifestyles make it hard to buy into the redemptive arc that the film inevitability sells.
Aside from references to her Aunt’s acting past, no real motivation is given for Mia’s apparently desperate desire and it’s tempting to conclude that she yearns for fame and fortune rather than artistic excellence. There’s no scene that really puts her passion for acting across and equally no scene portraying the desperate life from which acting is an escape. The closest it gets is the portrayal of Mia writing and performing a one-woman show to a tiny audience in a fringe theatre. However, given that we see very little of the actual play, even this attempt at developing her character is fumbled and she remains something of an enigma. Therefore, it’s hard to truly invest in her dream, professional success will simply take her from a world of relative privilege to a world of absolute privilege. Sebastian at least has a more clearly defined motive for his ambitions, he wants to open a jazz club in LA to preserve the art form and, in particular, he wants to save one of the city’s most famous clubs from the ignominy of being a samba/tapas club. The film interrogates this goal far more than it explores Mia’s acting ambitions, with John Legend playing Keith, a successful singer who not only offers Sebastian a spot in his band but also seriously questions his whole attitude to music. The debate is an almost existential one, should the old be preserved or adapted into the new, with Keith arguing that the jazz greats revered by Sebastian made history precisely because they broke the mould rather than merely imitating what came before.
Overall though it’s hard to shake the sense that Gosling and Stone are using the film to romanticise and glamorise their years as struggling artists, forgetting or wanting to forget the real difficulties that such a life entails (Stone’s case is a particularly striking example of this, in real life, she moved to Hollywood at 15 and presumably faced challenges far more compelling than disinterested casting directors and fitting in auditions with a 9 to 5 job).
The exceptions to this are Stone’s audition scenes which, informed as they are by Gosling and Stone’s genuine experiences, are the film’s most impactful moments. In some, she’s simply cut off after a few words, judged not to have “it” by the bored producer or casting director on the other side of the table. When allowed to act, she excels of course, her large open eyes expertly conveying emotion and a slow zoom drawing the audience in, inviting us to connect. In one such scene, having reached an emotional climax and begun to cry, she’s put on pause by a casting director taking a phone call about lunch and then invited to continue. It’s a scene that does what La La Land so often fails to do, giving a genuine insight into an actor’s life and inevitably it comes from reality, although it was Gosling who did the ignored emoting in real life.
The emotional impact that the film does have, comes from Gosling and Stone themselves, they have natural chemistry and spark off each other as their rocky love story unwinds, drawing us in as they’re forced to choose between art and love. It’s this choice that is the film’s true dramatic fulcrum, but it never feels entirely natural, the conflict sometimes a little too manufactured to be properly believable. Consequently, the film is at its best during the initial courtship, with the standout scene being a beautiful song and dance number shot high above the city during the “magic hour” at sunset. In front of a magical purple sky, the pair flirt in song, each verse concerning the lack of attraction for the other and each gesture, look and dance move saying just the opposite. By the end, the words have disappeared and the pretence has gone, Gosling is tap dancing on the bench and swirling Stone around his impromptu urban ballroom.
The scene is clearly an attempt to create the sort of iconic sequence that defined the era of classic musicals, with Gosling and Stone doing their best impression of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. It works not because either Gosling or Stone are fantastic musical actors, neither can match the footwork or precision vocals of the musical stars of yesteryear, but because they imbue their imperfect performances with charm and emotion, because they connect on a level far more important than technical prowess. It’s an approach that’s emblematic of the entire film, it’s easy to forget its flaws as it winks, shimmies and pops with colour before your eyes.
However, although it often works, there’s something dispiriting about La La Land’s approach to the modern musical, it seems to think that a few references to everyone in LA owning a Toyota Prius and the heartless nature of the modern entertainment business are enough to make it more than an exercise in nostalgia, or that, as a musical, it doesn’t need to do more than sing, dance and look pretty, cocooning its audience in a feel-good bubble. But, as Keith might point out, the classic musicals were about far more than that, Singing in the Rain was set against the backdrop of Hollywood’s difficult transition from silent films to talkies and West Side Story took in love, immigration, the American Dream and the importance of identity. In comparison, La La Land feels a little empty, with only an unexpected ending seriously exploring its central theme and its key message being little more than chase your dream. In this regard, it also compares unfavourably with The Artist, the last nostalgic resurrection of a dead genre to sweep to Oscars glory. Both are inward looking and both are packed with the charm but the silent film let genuine darkness into its characters’ lives and achieved a far deeper level of emotional engagement as a result.
Ultimately, La La Land is a nice, pleasant film, the charisma of its leads shines through, it’s often beautifully shot, and its acting, direction, singing and dancing are all on point (even if they never match the standards of its inspirations). These strengths are almost enough to overwhelm its weaknesses, almost but not quite, you can never shake the feeling that the plot isn’t really going anywhere, that this airbrushed world has blotted out any sense of reality and that, for all its technical prowess, La La Land is dramatically, conceptually and, in a sense, spiritually empty. Given the skill of those involved, it’s hard not to wish for something more.