La La Land
“La La Land” is kind of adorable and kind of inconsequential. It’s writer/director Damien Chazelle’s (“Whiplash”) ode to Old Hollywood, both the city of Los Angeles and the musical films it once spawned like sunrises.
“La La Land” is a stunning-looking movie, with eye-pleasing vistas, vivid colors and detailed production design and costumes. Not to mention the eminently ogle-able stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. You could take their faces and charms and transpose them into any Hollywood musical from its 1940s and ‘50s heydays, and they would not look out of place.
Both, alas, have rather modest singing voices. Hers is breathy and girly; his has a narrow range to which Justin Hurwitz, who composed the songs and soundtrack, carefully bookends his melodies so as not to strain. “City of Stars” is the most memorable tune and main theme, repeated in various forms and with both singers.
The story’s as old-fashioned as can be: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries to woo girl back. The narrative only really takes on some heft in the final act, as our star-crossed lovers struggle to reconcile their passions and hearts — which don’t necessarily always point in the same direction.
Chazelle uses a nifty parallel structure, so we see the tale unfold from first one perspective, and then the other. Later, this trick will be used again, unspooling in the opposite direction.
Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz purist eking out an existence hammering standards on the piano at a hip restaurant. But he has a tendency to lapse into his own compositions, much to the ire of the owner (J. K. Simmons). One night in walks Mia (Stone), an aspiring actress worn out from endless auditions, and she’s smitten.
It’s got all the ingredients of a classic Meet Cute — until Sebastian angrily brushes past her after getting canned.
But they do meet again, he’s a little more attentive this time, and things rise from there. A long walk to parked cars ends in a dance against the starry sky, with Gosling and Stone (or at least their doubles) flowing beautiful in a pas de deux. Later they’ll wind up at the planetarium and their hoofing will grow more literally celestial.
Their careers rise and fall, which alters and leavens their romance. Sebastian abandons his principles to join a very lucrative band that’s more Kenny G than John Coltrane. Soon he’s on the road all the time, doing interviews, making bank but emptying out his reserves of integrity. Mia, meanwhile, gives up on auditions and her day job as a barista to stage her own one-woman play.
I find myself deeply in like with this movie. It’s charming, it’s gorgeous, it’s nostalgic without seeming like a mere throwback. But I was emotionally detached during most of it. I understood Mia and Sebastian as constructs for a story, not living beings in whom I could invest. “La La Land” gives us the ol’ razzle-dazzle, but doesn’t get around to plucking the heart strings.