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The Sour Sweetness of ‘La La Land’

Damien Chazelle’s movie musical is charming but cynical

(Lionsgate)
(Lionsgate)

It may be called La La Land, which sounds like heaven, but it opens in hell: an L.A. freeway at rush hour. Don’t worry — the music will save us. Damien Chazelle’s new movie musical stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as two artists: he a jazz pianist, she an actress, both stuck in L.A. traffic. They’re young people trying to make it in a Hollywood that feels both old and new, utterly contemporary yet deliriously and deliberately tied to the past — just like this movie. Here’s the opening number: a jazzy song and dance atop the cars on that congested freeway, the color-coordinated and inordinately chipper commuters leaping and sashaying from vehicle to vehicle as far as the eye can see. “It’s another day of sun,” they all sing, high-kicking as if to ward off smog.

Solid colors and stylish cheer: It could be a Gap commercial. In fact, something like it once was, as in the ads that ripped from West Side Story and Flower Drum Song to sell khakis and monotone pullovers. Musicals are strange in that way, a zombie genre prone to take any number of forms — commercials, one-off episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or South Park, or even random set pieces in nonmusicals, like The Big Lebowski’s psychedelic “Gutterballs,” in which Busby Berkeley meets the bowling alley. Westerns have declined in cultural importance, hard-hitting noirs have all but been consumed by vague crime thrillers, but musicals have managed to hang on — somehow. Even films like Magic Mike and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, with their interplays of song, escapist fantasy, and broke-artist archetypes, are modern musicals hiding in plain sight.

Rather than being out of style, musicals are apparently everywhere. Yet making one for the silver screen, particularly an original like La La Land, can’t help but feel old-school. You can boil Chazelle’s movie down to straightforward nostalgia, as some critics have, but that is a bit reductive. It’s a movie set on capturing a particular kind of magic from the films it imitates, Hollywood confections from the industry’s Golden Age. It’s magic that movies today, for all of their spectacle and expensive verve, lack. Even when trapped in lame marriages or subject to divinely cruel comedy, the characters in musicals, with their “gotta sing, gotta dance!” spontaneity and boundless creative spirit, always somehow seem freer than the rest of us. Jerry Mulligan, hero of An American in Paris, is broke, but as he sings his way through nascent romance, his life feels rich. Gold Diggers of 1935’s surrealist closing number, “Lullaby of Broadway,” ends with a party girl dancing herself out of a skyscraper window. Harsh, cynical — but what a party.

That’s fantasy. As a movie by and about Hollywood, La La Land belongs to a particular brand of cinematic imagination, one openly full of industry self-regard. It’s in good company: This is also the story of Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain — to name a couple of Oscar nominees — and films like Robert Altman’s satirical masterpiece The Player. You can make that kind of movie without getting all het up over Hollywood’s ostensibly superior past. Singin’ in the Rain knows what it owes to silent movies, and even mourns them, but its Technicolor daydreams defiantly expose what those earlier films couldn’t do. That’s not quite the attitude of La La Land, which comes off as eager and studious.

Imitation invites unfair comparison. La La Land can’t hold a candle to its MGM-brand, big-budget forebears. The film’s young romantics, Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling), are a little too vague, its songs a little too bland, its sense of style a little too borrowed. And yet it’s an effective enough movie for its underlying theme — the bittersweet tides of industry change — to rise to the fore and feel like an argument. By the end, La La Land doesn’t merely embody those earlier films: It argues for their resurrection. Chazelle’s movie may be nostalgic, but it also verges on purism, striving to re-create a magic that it doesn’t really understand.

You could describe all of La La Land using retro analogies: “And then there’s a Fred Astaire dance sequence, and the next part is a Gene Kelly fantasy.” The movie has the bright romanticism of Jacques Demy (The Young Girls of Rochefort), but instead of sending candy-colored shocks of joy and romance down French city streets, Chazelle’s lovers dance and sing through jazz clubs and studio backlots, where a saloon and a coliseum can be neighbors. Chazelle doesn’t mind that you’ve seen it all before. His idea of a great first date, for Sebastian and Mia at least, is a trip to the cinema to see Rebel Without a Cause in 35mm — and even the print is warm and overused. Some time later, that movie theater gets closed.

It’s bittersweet. It helps to have stars like Stone and Gosling, actors at their best when asked to use a light touch. Neither can really sing or dance, and the movie itself, for its many accomplishments, is a little shabby — virtuosic and lively, but unafraid of imperfection. In Chazelle’s hands, this isn’t a lapse: It’s a style. The heroes of the director’s movies are not idols, but wannabes and imperfect performers, sometimes with attitudes. Miles Teller’s hero in Whiplash was defiantly mediocre (hence: Miles Teller). In La La Land, Stone and Gosling play more talented, but nonetheless struggling, artists in a city full of young talents looking for the next gig. Much of the movie is about this struggle — her failed attempt to stage a one-woman show, the artistic concessions he makes in order to make money in a contemporary music scene. He’s not only a pianist, but also a traditionalist, the kind of guy who turns his nose up at fusion music and says he can’t date a woman who doesn’t like jazz.

(Lionsgate)
(Lionsgate)

In fact, Sebastian is a good stand-in for Chazelle, who has made a musical that, despite its charms, comes from an anxious place. Movies are struggling to maintain relevance the way jazz once did, each of them losing out to the more popular art forms of TV and pop music. Chazelle, by way of Gosling’s character, wags his finger at modernizing tastes, those popular styles displacing his passions. Sebastian’s reverence for jazz leads him to idolize black jazz legends, but to reject the offshoots: fusion, for example. He joins a band with a jazz experimenter played by John Legend, and when they go on tour, the band evolves — from jazz, to soul, to pop. Similarly, Legend’s character starts off as a traditional jazz musician before delving into jazz fusion, and then into soul. He evolves the way black music did. It’s strange to see Sebastian reject this progression — even stranger to see him venerate the accomplished veterans making the rounds at jazz clubs in a movie that, for all its dutiful respect, never lets those musicians speak for themselves, or their music.

Whiplash suffers from the same silence. It’s a movie that’s more about jazz than it thinks it is: a jazz-centric Goliath vs. Goliath ego war that accidentally, in the silence of its black characters, tells a secondary story about how jazz may have gotten away from its original musicians. The two men at its center seem to care less about the art than about their ability to outperform each other — which might have been interesting in a movie that was less caught up in the excitement of violence and humiliation.

But there, as in La La Land, Chazelle holds up artistic idols that his movie ultimately undermines. It attempts to tell what is, in musicals, a not uncommon story of fated romance and artistic sacrifice. But Chazelle over-relies on grandeur: big gestures, like making his star-crossed couple float, literally, into the stars as they dance; or a single-take, side-by-side tap number; or a fantastical, time-traveling dance finale filmed on a studio set, à la An American in Paris. He forgets that what earns a swoon, what really sets those young lovers skyward, is not the big flourishes but instead the little details, the rich glimpses of psychology that can make the stakes of those big moments sing.

There are too few personal details to grasp from Sebastian or Mia. The closest may be the rich seriousness in Gosling’s face when his character sits in front of the piano. Chazelle doesn’t quite have a knack for granular detail, but his stars do. His talent is for writing archetypes that his actors can fill in, not for pushing those archetypes to the kinds of delightful extremes that musicals are known for. His movie has charm, at least, if nothing else. And as an attempt to pay homage to a vanishing world, La La Land is as dutiful as it is endearing — sweet, if a little sour, too.