Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons
Director: Damien Chazelle
Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes
By Jericho Cerrona
Writer-director Damien Chazelle's previous film, Whiplash, was about an egotistical young jazz drummer punishing himself for his art. His latest effort, La La Land, could have just as easily be titled Whip-Pan: The Musical, a film which also highlights an egotistical jazz musician suffering for the purity of the music while featuring more whip-pans per minute than any picture since Martin Scorsese's Casino.
Chazelle loves whip-panning his restless camera up, down, sideways, and even into swimming pools, and La La Land emerges as a natural extension of Whiplash; a gentler, more romantic tale of chasing dreams and the sacrifices inherent in being true to one's artistic pursuits. This flashy aesthetic makes sense in this case because Chazelle is essentially attempting to revive the Hollywood MGM musical by way of Jacques Demy, with elaborately choreographed dance numbers, original songs, and a wistful harkening back to the golden age of cinema. Unfortunately, though the ambition on display here is admirable, Chazelle sets up certain expectations that his film cannot, or simply refuses to, live up to.
Such expectations are apparent right out of the gate with a meticulously choreographed, supposed single-take song and dance number taking place on a traffic jammed L.A. freeway. It's an impressive technical feat; with various extras jumping, skating, and flipping over cars as the camera tracks, spins, and yes, pans wildly in sync with the action. As an affectionate ode to the technicolor magic of yesteryear, this opening has a certain kind of sweetness. However, as the film proceeds, introducing us to struggling actor Mia (Emma Stone) and struggling jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who endure the predictable standoffish initial run-ins only to eventually meet cute, it becomes clear that Chazelle's aims aren't to unleash the emotional power that the movie musical can elicit, but instead to provide us with a safely packaged bit of pastiche which never transcends it's influences.
The narrative here is essentially a bland love story about two people trying to decide whether or not sacrificing their artistic dreams for domestic comfort is worth all the pain and frustration, and while it's easy to appreciate Chazelle's technical skill in appropriating older styles of filmmaking, the end result is referential to a fault. When Gosling grabs a lamp post and joins Stone for a polite tap-dancing number, for example, we are simply reminded of Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, which severely undercuts the film's attempts at being anything more than a hat-tipping homage. In terms of the Mia/Sebastian romance, La La Land also doesn't offer anything novel about modern day relationships. Instead, the film pretends these people are operating within the prism of nostalgic fantasy, which makes the present day setting all the more puzzling. Beyond the existence of cell phones and modern vehicles, there's really no reason why this film shouldn't have been set in the 1950s.
With references to Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, and especially Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, La La Land isn't consistently uptempo and lavish enough to work fully as an outright MGM musical, and other than a lovingly crafted final montage, it doesn't have the stark melancholy of Demy's work. Instead, we are forced to endure multiple scenes of Sebastian whining about the purity of jazz while Mia breaks down after consecutive bombed auditions. John Legend also shows up as the only prominent African American character in the entire film, seemingly on hand to represent regressive aspects of selling out the dream. As Sebastian is goaded into joining Legend's alt R & B/pop/jazz hybrid band, we are meant to sympathize with the white character's heartbreak at the prospect of becoming commercially successful while losing his soul. This kind of naive color blindness is absurd, especially considering Chazelle has covered similar ground in Whiplash, another movie with strange ideas about race.
The major flaw with La La Land, though, is that it simply mimics the excitement of the past rather than subverting or commenting on its prescribed genre. Like The Artist, Chazelle's skillful if empty homage fetishizes retro nostalgia until it eventually undermines itself; retreating into safe spaces when it should be opening up a new way to look at the cinematic musical. If this is one for the dreamers, as they say, then we should be dreaming of a better film, perhaps one with less contrived whip-pans and more genuine emotion.