"La La Land" Is A Trivial Ode To Its Movie Musical Ancestors

An hour into his glib movie musical “La La Land,” writer-director Damien Chazelle diverts a couple of lines of dialogue to dismiss potential critics of his movie as anti-nostalgia zealots. “Fuck ‘em!” cries Ryan Gosling’s navel-gazing jazzman Seb (short for Sebastian) in reference to his own detractors. But the exclamation is clearly intended for viewers who might not be buying what Chazelle is selling. For sale: a nouveau Hollywood musical in the tradition of the colorful, burst-into-song classics of yesteryear. It’s a handsome idea, not far removed from what Michel Hazanavicius did in 2011 with silent film (and eventual Best Picture winner) “The Artist.”

Except, the staples the filmmaker has in mind (“West Side Story” and “Singin’ In The Rain” above all) share some very important things in common, none of which Chazelle honors here – much less makes his own.

Firstly, strong central conflict. The biggest conflict for much of “La La Land” is that saucer-eyed Tinseltown ingénue Mia (Emma Stone) doesn’t like jazz music. Although her dead-end acting career translating to life as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot poses as conflict, we never see or, more crucially, feel her struggle. Her early audition scenes are played entirely for laughs, making her distaste for jazz (much to the chagrin of eventual flame Seb) as close as the film comes to real disharmony. At least until its final act, which is undoubtedly the picture’s strongest passage. More on that later.

The opening musical number serves up a preview of the empty calories to come. Its freeway-set song-and-dance is a show-off that features zero faces we see again, a sequence whose primary purpose is to establish that we’re watching a musical. Then we’re off to watch Seb and Mia mope around Los Angeles, occasionally bumping into each other without ever properly meeting, until they do. Then they fall madly in love, of course.

Chazelle, who wrote and directed 2014’s exceptional “Whiplash,” knows that his Hollywood failures-in-love storyline is built on clichés – he must know – which is why it’s so exasperating that he does so little with it. Beyond a dusting of groan-worthy Prius and gluten and Kenny G jokes that seem laser-targeted at places like Bel-Air and Brentwood (i.e. places where Oscar voters live), there’s shockingly little at the core of the film – but for a thirty-something white male extolling the wonders of jazz.

The second thing “La La Land” bungles: its music. There are two stand out tunes here – “City Of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream”) – both wistful ballads that underscore just how unmemorable the rest of Justin Hurwitz’s compositions are. His uptempo numbers get lost in over-caffeinated camera work, his dense melodies and impossibly wordy lyrics somehow failing to move the story forward at all. Moreover, R&B star John Legend’s appearance as a sell-out pop star and his subsequent song land with a thud. Legend is far and away the most talented musician in the film and he’s been saddled with playing its least talented musician.

More puzzling still: an out of place cover of a-ha’s “Take On Me” is a goof that seems to go on for an eternity. It’s wisely been scrubbed from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.

Lastly, Gosling and Stone are supremely talented actors but not much for singing and dancing. Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds they are not, forced to make do with functional pipes and questionable hoofing skills. Their big Griffith Park tap number, set against a lavender Los Angeles sunset, arrives with simplistic choreography and, like the rest of the film, plentiful nods to much better movies. Later on, when they’re dancing against a starry backdrop inside Griffith Observatory, their figures transform into silhouettes – and much better dancers. It’s a bit of movie magic at its most bewildering.

That’s not to say the film isn’t fleetingly charming or fun to look at (many thanks to its French New Wave influences), but its visual delights hammer home the idea that “La La Land” is destined to be its best self on Broadway. Where the story can be massaged into something substantial. Where the songs – with a few new ones thrown into the mix – can better serve the characters. And where they can be performed by professional singers.

Credit where credit is due: Damien Chazelle knows how to end a movie. “Whiplash” came with a brilliant finale, and “La La Land” crescendos in much the same way. Its final twenty minutes are its best, retroactively giving purpose to much of what came before and threating to dig up honest-to-goodness thematic material that simply wasn’t there previously. The climax is where Chazelle’s visuals and screenplay and Hurwitz’s music finally dovetail, sending viewers out on a high, thinking they’ve seen something better than they have.

This is the luck and the curse of “La La Land.” A few elements of a great, enduring classic live within – even one or two of its own invention – seasoning its frequently flavorless melodrama with invigorating bursts of pep and color. Accordingly, it should surprise no one that Chazelle gets as defensive as he does in some of his dialogue, pre-empting the movie’s critics as unsentimental sourpusses. This is a filmmaker realizing that his vanity project might contain more vanity than he’s comfortable with, but charging ahead anyway.

What he’s created in “La La Land” is a mirage, a self-satisfied illusion that tries and fails to sanctify a heap of classics that don’t require its sanctification. Every minute spent watching it is a minute not spent watching “Singin’ In The Rain,” and that’s reason enough to hope its writer-director has gotten puffed-up, ersatz movie musicals out of his system.

He’s done better before. He’ll do better again.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: December 9, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Summit Entertainment (Lionsgate)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenwriter: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some language)