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Damien Chazelle‘s La La Land is undoubtedly a love letter to mid-century Hollywood musicals, but it sometimes feels like a passion project that was penned by a filmmaker who never fully grasped the object of his affection. The superficial thrills of the genre are all present and adoringly rendered, but the actual purpose of the whole exercise is much harder to discern.
Hints of greater meanings in the themes of past and tradition run throughout the story of two young hopefuls who struggle to navigate love, art, rent, and their futures in modern-day Los Angeles. Mia, portrayed by the luminous Emma Stone, is a struggling actress and aspiring playwright, who works in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot that is, as she loves to point out, across the street from portions of the set from Casablanca. Meanwhile, Ryan Gosling‘s Sebastian lives life as a pianist who lovingly and pedantically talks about jazz like a smoother Howard Moon, but must pay his bills by playing treacly muzak in cocktail bars.
Caustic sparks fly as the pair run into each other and soon fall in love. They watch Rebel Without A Cause at an old theater! They visit the Griffith Observatory! Mia attempts to recreate the plucky joie de vivre of an aunt who inspired her to live her dreams, writing a play that she fears is too nostalgic, even though Sebastian assures her that nothing can be too nostalgic. Sebastian, however, dreams of restoring a legendary jazz club, instead of watching it become a samba and tapas venue. Instead, he finds himself in a modern jazz fusion outfit with a bandleader who insists the best way to keep the genre alive is to keep it new.
Altogether, it’s a concept with great potential and significance – the question of whether or not faithful recreation or innovation is the better way to honor the past is vital to art, particularly in our remake-obsessed climate – but the way it’s handled in La La Land winds up being pretty, yet ultimately thin, much like the singing voices of its two leads. What’s more, the film isn’t really sure where it stands on the issue, often veering toward overtly faithful homages to the glory days of studio musicals, with its glowing cinematography, expansive wide shots, dazzling choreography and costumes, and speedy dialogue.
But the film falters in some of its most important moments, specifically as it relates to the songs. It’s particularly disappointing given Chazelle’s previous Oscar-nominated work. His use of music as both a score and a character was masterful in his 2014 debut, Whiplash, but he struggles to recreate that magic here — although he does have his moments. The opening number, set amid a Los Angeles traffic jam, is an instant classic and the stunning finale is sweet and melancholy and heartbreaking in all of the right ways. Rest assured, Chazelle knows how to stick to a landing, but much of what’s in between is nowhere near as strong. The sugar-rush melodies lack the bombast required of a giant musical production, and they’re sprinkled throughout the film’s overlong 126 minutes without much grasp of a musical’s traditional ebb and flow between dialogue and song.
Chazelle’s attempts at modernizing the genre are also uneven in their success. The juxtaposition of old-fashioned conventions and present-day sensibilities is often charming – and it’s refreshing to watch Mia get a dose of agency in the romantic lead that was not always afforded to her predecessors – but there’s nothing actually new about them, either. Bob Fosse was bringing more depth, darkness, and forward-thinking sensibilities to ostensibly fluffy show tunes on stage and screen over four decades ago. Mia’s big, epiphanic number about dreamers and broken hopes is a poor man’s “Cabaret” that might have its own inspirational fallen-woman-who-drank-too-much, but lacks the former’s unique mix of plucky rebellion, resignation, and defiant resolution.
La La Land is gorgeous, often delightful, and quite satisfying. Its very existence is a triumph, given that an unabashed throwback A-list musical could not have been an easy sell, even for someone coming off of such significant hype. Everyone involved deserves credit for taking the risk at all, and this is still more exciting than the average, predictable awards season drama. But it’s still a slight disappointment given the incredible amount of potential in the talent involved and the idea of the production itself. As the film waltzes to its melancholy conclusion about lost loves and faded hopes, it’s hard not to think about the viewing experience itself as another kind of heartstring-tugging what if.