(Warning: plot and narrative twists discussed in detail!)
Damien Chazelle's La La Land takes quite a few chances evoking old musicals--on one hand the classics help adds a nostalgic glow to his picture; on the other audiences might be too distracted by love for those films to look kindly on this one (see Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist and its use--some would say theft--of Bernard Hermann's score from Vertigo).
Chazelle does wear his movie love openly on his sleeve and to that extent his passion is hard to resist: this latest effort takes the storyline of Martin Scorsese's New York, New York (two artists Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) trying to succeed in a major American city), ornaments it with the bright colors and (towards the latter half) bittersweet tone of Umbrellas of Cherbourg, caps the story with a lengthy stylized dance number reprising the whole narrative, a la An American in Paris.
Along the way Sebastian treats Mia to a screening of Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, later bringing her to the Griffith Observatory where portions of Ray's film was shot--smart move on Chazelle's part. Too much Rebel would have made the viewer forget all about the drama actually unfolding; Chazelle keeps Ray's film at arm's length, the camera watching Mia and Sebastian watching the big screen. The screening is rudely interrupted by the print snarling and then burning up (not a happy moment for me: underwent too many instances of this happening not to feel some kind of post-traumatic panic) so Sebastian and Mia drive to the actual observatory, supplanting classic image with the real thing. I do wonder at the couple's blithe unconcern with the disaster they just witnessed--being old-film lovers in Los Angeles wouldn't they be at least slightly aware that prints are an increasingly precious resource?
The movie is basically Chazelle carefully negotiating such pitfalls; that he comes out more or less whole on the other side is actually quite an accomplishment, which makes me hesitate and ask: should I or shouldn't I? On one hand the picture can't help it--the musical has some of the richest history among Hollywood genres, and to avoid mention of any of it would be unthinkable; on the other Chazelle's asking for it--every time he refers to or evokes a title he lays himself wide open.
As the lovers Gosling is a pretty camera subject with light feet and a tolerable voice; Stone's dancing is equally deft (or adequate) with marginally better voice--but those vast liquid eyes and wide smile! Far as I'm concerned she carries the production, and it's a bit of a mystery that her character has to struggle for parts (maybe the casting director needs to actually look at her audition footage). The two together have good chemistry but you can't help think of a pair of puppies at play, growling puppy-dog growls, crying puppy-dog tears over lightweight problems. Don Lockwood struggled with the transition from silent to sound, Tony Hunter's career was fading and he hungered for a comeback; the best Chazelle can come up with by way of difficulties is scheduling conflicts between the two youngsters (at least Lockwood had to grapple with the formidable Lina Lamont).
Of course we can argue that the clash is internal and Mia and Sebastian are actually their own worse enemies--though one remembers Jimmy Doyle's volatile temper in New York, New York. That film seems far more tough-minded about relationships than Chazelle's could ever hope to be.
Might help if Los Angeles and its inhabitants didn't look so scrubbed. When Mia goes to a Hollywood party she wears her best good-girl frock, arms bare but not so much that you'll think she's 'that kind of a girl;' plenty of alcohol flowing but no cocaine, not even tobacco. For a real look at the city's decadent side I suspect we're better off watching Nicholas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon--yes that film's heroine kept skidding from reality into fantasy and back but if we're talking emotional textures and drug use its presentation seems far more persuasive.
To the director's credit he does take a judiciously chosen page or two from his betters. The camera swirls around the dancers respecting the not-too-difficult choreography; at his cleverest Chazelle sets one number on a Los Angeles interstate ramp (the movie's literally high point) another against a softly bruised Los Angeles sunset. Gosling and Stone aren't exactly Fred and Ginger much less Fred and Cyd and the number isn't exactly "Dancing in the Dark" but short of resurrecting all the parties concerned including Vincente Minnelli (odd to think that Stanley Donen as of this writing is still available) we're probably not going to get anything as good anytime soon.
One of the better American musicals of the year, though to be fair that's not saying much (the two other notable examples of the genre in 2016 include Trolls which I haven't bothered watching and Moana which I loathed). Best since Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog? Maybe.
First published in Businessworld 1.12.17