Stars: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, Amiée Conn, Terry Walters, Thom Shelton, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, J.K. Simmons, Jason Fuchs | Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
The third film from Damien Chazelle, in what might be dubbed his “Jazz Trilogy”, La La Land eschews the New Wave immediacy of Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and the psychological horror notes of Whiplash, and brings us a blast of Golden Age musical energy. La La Land arrives on a zephyr of hype; and while it’s not up to the standard of his previous feature, it has a certain charm of its own.
Except, it’s not really its own. Like The Artist before it, La La Land is an awards-friendly picture – proudly presented in “Cinemascope” – which is inextricably wedded to past glories. Yet I’m not sure its modern elements are entirely comfortable in the relationship.
Ryan Gosling plays Seb, who dreams of opening his own jazz club. Emma Stone is Mia, a struggling actress trying to catch a break via one of her many, excruciating auditions. Both are periodically lost in the reverie of gaudy song and dance daydreams, stealing them away from the thanklessness of real life. And while their stars are hardly on the rise, their paths are destined to cross.
Once they do, the film enters a middle third of middling domestic drama, as their unique ambitions struggle to dovetail. Seb and Mia gravitate like amateur dancers moving to different tunes. It’s more Blue Valentine than Crazy Stupid Love – and frankly, Chazelle makes it hard to yearn for them to be together. They’re fundamentally not compatible, either professionally or personally, and any chemistry is based on what we know from the actors’ previous collaborations.
Given the sugar rush trailer, some may understandably go into the movie expecting to be transported from the grimness of the past year. Yet Chazelle’s film is actually all about disappointment: the imposition of real-world concerns upon our most cherished dreams. It’s a reflection, if anything, of the mood of the Western world (the popular art world, anyway), rather than an antidote for it.
After a glorious opening sequence, which sees a freeway traffic jam come alive in dance and song, we’re introduced to Mia, who gets a catchy number with her flatmates as they prepare to go to a swanky L.A. party. But we won’t get the Baz Luhrmann-style jamboree that’s been teased. Because, as it quickly becomes clear, Chazelle is contemptuous of modernity in all its forms. It’s a world where the presence of electronic instrumentation is shorthand for tackiness; The O.C. is crass but Rebel Without a Cause is cool; and mobile phone contact is virtually verboten. It all comes across as a stuffy yearning for a generalised yesteryear, rather than nostalgia for anything specific.
Mia is the more appealing character of the two. She is given more to do, dramatically speaking, and it’s probably Stone’s warmest, most lived-in performance since The Help. Stone is also a stronger performer than Gosling, with greater vocal range and more fluid dance moves. Neither is a knockout, but their well-choreographed efforts have a stumbling charm.
John Legend rocks up halfway through, and he’s essentially the Devil, come to tempt Seb’s soul with the promise of MOR pop rock and a grand-a-week paycheck. (Because, y’know, money is inherently evil.) We also get a cameo from J.K. Simmons, who sadly doesn’t get to strut his stuff.
As with Whiplash, Chazelle gives us a bravura last hurrah: a gorgeous sequence which portrays an alternative, stylised version of the events we’ve witnessed. It’s a bittersweet climax, for sure, and it hammers home the feeling that we’ve just watched a movie whose narrative thrust is fuelled by two people with no compelling reason to be together. But it is undeniably stirring.
Chazelle’s film goes down as a minor disappointment. Strip away the razzle-dazzle – which is already sorely lacking in that drag of a second act – and you’re left with a story which simply isn’t that interesting. At just 31, it’s clear that Chazelle is already a hugely talented filmmaker. But this is a movie whose mix of the melancholy and the momentous feels forced and awkward, and whose script cannot match its technical craft.
La La Land is in cinemas now.