It’s time for the semi-annual holiday musical extravaganza, which is how Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is being pitched to the world. A supposed throwback to old jazz and ’50s musicals (complete with an old-fashioned Warner Brothers logo), La La Land wears these influences proudly, at least for a bit. For a movie with a trailer that purports it to be a modern-day all-singing, all-dancing spectacle, the film forgets its pedigree — or perhaps its vision — for long stints. There’s a stretch over the last half to third of the movie where I (and the movie) forgot this was supposed to be a musical. This was quickly followed by a sense of relief as I started to realize how much stronger the film is on its own merits as a character drama shorn of musical bits that unfortunately feel gimmicky.
Chazelle’s film is a story not only of Los Angeles, but of the people who end up there chasing their dreams. On one end is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an unhealthily obsessed jazz fan who can’t keep a job but wants nothing more than to open an old-fashioned jazz club. At the same time, there’s Mia (Emma Stone), a barista toiling away while she tries to become an actress. The two — after some difficulties mostly due to Sebastian’s off-putting nature — become entangled, and the film becomes a story of them not only supporting the purity of each other’s visions but the price chasing these ideals can cost. Chazelle is able to look at these two people in a fully formed manner, even if he gets stuck in the trap of Hollywood insider in-jokes, something that eventually (and thankfully) fades away. It helps that Gosling and Stone have enough charm to make you care (or at least pay attention).
As a simple drama, La La Land works well. The biggest problem with the film is really its main draw: the musical aspect. I should mention that the specific type of musical La La Land is peddling isn’t one I normally warm up to. It’s a little too show-tune for my tastes, and La La Land doesn’t help its case by being pure pastiche. It’s all stylish enough, with Chazelle whipping the camera around, but there’s nothing here that really pushes past simple nostalgia. Also not helping things are the foundational issues within the movie. As soon as it ended, I couldn’t remember a single song — the greatest sin any musical can commit. On top of that, Gosling doesn’t have the skill set for this kind of movie. His singing is weirdly muted and his dancing is stiff, careful and not very natural. Stone fares better, but she doesn’t exactly blow the doors off the thing, and there’s not a scene or a dance number that stands out in my mind. Luckily, the rest of the film and its characters are engaging enough to make the film work. Just don’t expect the rebirth of the musical. Rated PG-13 for some language.
Now Playing at The Fines Arts and Regal Biltmore Grande.