Courtesy Lionsgate

‘La La Land’ Grafts the Golden Era of Film Onto Modern Day

The film’s throwback Hollywood charm is well-executed, but ultimately contrived.

It aspires to gossamer and moonbeams, to bygone eras of jazz and black-and-white movies, to Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. It has scenes of people breaking into song and dance in the middle of dialogue. They used to call these musicals.

How can any movie lover, or any civilized person really, be against La La Land ? Let me try to explain. The idea is swell, and the spirited efforts of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone—neither known primarily for song-and-dance prowess, though both have experience in those departments—are, for sure, spirited. There are even moments where the musical-drama format (this isn’t exactly musical-comedy) slips into blissful gear, especially when a rambling nighttime conversation above the lights of Los Angeles morphs into a dance duet that feels truly earned, playing out in a single unbroken take that carries us into the old-fashioned movie paradise that the film is aiming at.

In that sequence, you can see why writer/director Damien Chazelle took the gamble of mounting a movie musical in an era that just doesn’t do this kind of film. Chazelle snagged a “Wow, really?” Oscar nomination for writing the showily syncopated Whiplash, but here we should recall his little-seen 2009 film Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench, an ingratiating thesis-project picture that unabashedly took the form of a musical. The director is 31, and he has that nostalgia for things that were already played out by the time he was born. So La La Land happily embraces a stylized world where the palm trees look painted and where an idealistic jazz pianist, Sebastian (Gosling), might strike sparks with an aspiring actress, Mia (Stone), as they climb the ladder of success—but at what price?

That Chazelle thinks this is a fine, fresh question will tell you how cutting-edge this very earnest movie is. A few poignant issues are raised—at what point, for instance, do you give up on your dreams, dreams that look a little frayed at the edges after years of struggle? La La Land also hits some pleasant blue notes in treating its youthful romance with a degree of melancholy distance (Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz seem to have adopted the classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as the model here). In handing dance shoes to Gosling and Stone, Chazelle guarantees a strong baseline of skillful banter and emotional range. When Mia wonders whether she really is good enough to make it, Stone shows you the panic and resignation beneath the question. Gosling’s got leading-man stuff to burn, and he’s turned into one of our most gifted comic performers.

They deserve applause, but it would be nice if Chazelle’s affection for musicals extended to the supporting casts that used to frolic in such things; aside from an extended cameo by Whiplash Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons and modest turns from John Legend and Rosemarie DeWitt, there’s no interest in anybody else here. But then this is not a musical—it’s a “musical,” an homage that adds 21st-century attitude to an old genre; the quotation marks help us forgive the game but decidedly non-Astaire-and-Rogers-like leads. This seems to be enough for many people: La La Land generated much festival buzz, is getting awards from critics’ groups, and stands likely to haul in a bunch of Oscar nominations. I believe people when they say they are moved or enchanted by the film; it just didn’t move or enchant me. The skill on display is undeniable, but the charm feels calculated, or second-hand.

One thing for certain: This is the kind of movie in which Hollywood loves to see itself. On Oscar night you’ll hear a lot of self-congratulation about La La Land and good old movie magic and “Who says we can’t make this kind of picture anymore?” and how this is the sort of movie that inspires people to try their luck in Hollywood. Except of course that Hollywood doesn’t make this kind of movie at all—it’s a fluke that La La Land got produced among the action behemoths and superhero sequels that are the actual purpose of Hollywood now. The dreams of Sebastian and Mia seem not just unreal in that context, but frankly kind of dumb. La La Land, Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., Dec. 16 at various theaters.

film@seattleweekly.com

More in Film

Seattle Asian American Film Festival 2019 Picks

Make the most of the cultural cinematic event with these four selections.

‘Roma’ projects to be the big winner at the 91st Academy Awards this Sunday. Photo by Carlos Somonte
And The Winner Is: 2019 Oscars Preditions

Who will take home the awards on cinema’s biggest night?

Mads Mikkelsen stars in Seattle’s current weather… I mean, ‘Arctic.’ Photo by Helen Sloan/Bleecker Street
Mads Mikkelsen Delivers a Tour de Force in ‘Arctic’

The near-silent performance makes this survival film transcend the genre.

The upbeat everyman Emmet remains cheerful even in post-apocalyptic settings. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Everything’s Still Awesome

‘The Lego Movie 2’ builds on the success of the original with more humorous pop culture-drenched adventure.

In a fairer world, little film like ‘The Rider’ would have a chance at Oscars gold. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Who We Would’ve Nominated For 2019 Academy Awards

Narrow defintions of “Oscar worthy films” and Hollywood politics shut out some of the year’s best. Let’s change that.

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly take the stage as Laurel and Hardy. 
Photo by Nick Wall/Sony Pictures Classics
‘Stan & Ollie’ and the Art of Playing Comedic Geniuses

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly carry the story of legendary duo Laurel and Hardy.

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig simmer as musicians in love in <em>Cold</em> <em>War</em>. Photo by Lukasz Bak
The Warm Musical Romance of ‘Cold War’

The gorgeous Polish tale of love behind the Iron Curtain would be a layup for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in a non-‘Roma’ year.

KiKi Layne (Tish) and Stephan James (Fonny) star in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’ Photo by Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures
Meandering Along ‘Beale Street’

Barry Jenkins follows up ‘Moonlight’ with the textured racial mood piece, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’

Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson square off in ‘Aquaman.’ Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
‘Aquaman’ Can’t Figure Out Which Wave to Surf

The latest DC Comic movie struggles to find a balance between keeping a straight face and having fun.

Emily Blunt takes on the role of the magical nanny in Mary Poppins Returns. 
Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios
‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Boasts Nostalgic Musical Charm

The first soundtrack album I ever knew deeply was Mary Poppins, and… Continue reading

Spider-Folks from various dimensions come together in ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.’ Image courtesy Columbia Pictures/Sony
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Gets Caught in Its Own Web

The animated comic book gets stuck up on its multiverse fan service.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone battle for the queen’s attention in <em>The Favourite</em>. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Twentieth Century Fox
Black Comedy with a Regal Veneer

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz bring catty rivalry to the queen’s court in ‘The Favourite.’