La La Land (2016)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
“La La Land” starts out like a colorful Coldplay music video. But somewhere along the way, Damien Chazelle’s whimsical Hollywood love story becomes surprisingly conventional.
In Los Angeles, the actresses are all baristas and the musicians are all unemployed. At least, that’s the picture we get from Mia (Emma Stone), whose auditions always end in disappointment, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a restaurant pianist who’s tired of not being able to play his own material. They run into each other a few times before it clicks, but eventually they decide to begin a rapturous love affair in the City of Angels. But if you’ve ever seen a rom-com, you know it won’t always be bubbly and carefree.
At first, the whole thing is like a dream. “La La Land” is a canvas without a single color missing. An omniscient camera floats above its subjects, as if it weren’t suspended by anything but the stars—credit cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“American Hustle”) with always putting the camera where we want it. It’s like an Old Navy commercial gone just right. But under the highly unconventional surface, “La La Land” looks a lot like romances we’ve seen before. The glorious dating months, right at the beginning, when you’re still learning and the spark has just ignited so the flame is new. Then, later, the fights—the flame flickering, creating dirty ash that covers everything that was once so shiny and hopeful. Mia and Sebastian aren’t immune to the realities of life, even if “La La Land” sometimes seems to be. The long flashy dance sequences are nice, but they don’t distract you from the fact that this is a story about two young people dating.
But hey, it still has Emma Stone. She gives a new face to whimsy. She’s consistently shown she has a firm grasp on the light-hearted and the heavy-hearted. The first time she was nominated for an Oscar, two years ago for “Birdman,” she lost. Maybe this year she’ll get another chance. And Ryan Gosling, the only other actor in “La La Land” with more than a handful of lines, once again proves he’s on the track to all-time A-list superstardom. He’s more relatable and charismatic than George Clooney, and with just as bright a future. In “La La Land,” your heart sinks when Gosling plays the piano and croons into the microphone. He’s no Sinatra, but the emotion you hear is what makes jazz so real. Gosling practiced 12 hours/week on the piano, learning to play all of the complicated songs his character plays in the film. It’s damn impressive.
Chazelle is an artist, and “La La Land” is art in its purest, most potent form. Not only the visuals, with its firm grasp of the color wheel and Oscar-worthy production design, but also the sounds—including the lovely score and one or two original songs whose titles we’re likely to hear called out on nomination day (though if it were up to me, the night’s prize would end up in someone else’s hands). But all that beauty is just a veneer for the formulaic story that lies within. The theatrical break-out-in-song moments are front-loaded. “La La Land” is great, but Chazelle’s “Whiplash”—a Best Picture nominee but long-shot that never got taken seriously—left me trying to catch my breath and catch up to my racing heart when it was over. “La La Land” never got me there. It doesn’t sustain the “wow” factor we see in the film’s first twenty minutes.