The temptation to dismiss La La Land out of hand is almost overpowering. After all, an “original,” “bold,” “gorgeous” — that’s the publicity patter — revival of the ancient boy-meets-girl-and-they-sing-and-dance musical framework? Starring those bubbly, tuneful souls Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone? Really? Set in Los Angeles? With Gosling as a struggling jazz pianist and Stone as a would-be actress and full-time barista with a song in her heart? Come on.
Mia (Stone) works at a café that happens to be located on the Warner Bros. lot, pushing cappuccinos and ice-cream cones and, in her spare time, forever auditioning for her big showbiz break, unsuccessfully.
Experienced musician Sebastian (Gosling), who always wears a coat and tie, fills in the down time between recording dates and live jazz gigs by tickling the keys for diners in a restaurant — Gosling appears to be doing his own playing, and is quite talented. Mia is a cheerful, up-beat type who tries hard not to let failure get to her. Sebastian, on the other hand, is moody and mercurial, the sort of guy who would walk right past an admiring fan without acknowledging her. And yet they share the same basic dream.
They chance into a glossy, airy, only-in-the-movies relationship that finds them crooning composer Justin Hurwitz’s tunes and pirouetting together at Mulholland Drive, Griffith Observatory, and many other well used Tinseltown locations. Hurwitz’s six original songs are inoffensive, pretty much the standard fare of Broadway stage shows; not nearly as effective as his orchestral soundtrack score in describing the inner workings of these two essentially shallow, quickly sketched characters, whose aspirations match those of countless movie-musical characters from Hollywood of the 1930s through the 1960s.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle, a musically minded creator who had a hit with the hard-driven character study Whiplash in 2014, self-consciously thrusts us into Jacques Demy/Gene Kelly territory (or the romantic dreams of Peter Bogdanovich, take your pick) in every scene of La La Land. Hurwitz’s music and Chazelle’s kinetic two-shots reek of nostalgia for a vanished style of screen entertainment. For those who know The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it’s a harmless curiosity, a workable but rather heavily implied time-travel voyage to 50 years ago; for those who don’t, it will probably be incomprehensible.
Watching Gosling, usually cast as a cool, detached man of action in such films as The Place Beyond the Pines and Only God Forgives, glide gracefully past Angel’s Flight or the Watts Towers reminds us of the way we felt when Christopher Walken was revealed, as a saloon-dancing gangster in Pennies from Heaven, to be a frustrated song-and-dance man. À la Walken, we keep expecting Gosling’s Sebastian to slap Mia upside the head instead of nuzzling her. Neither Gosling nor Stone will ever make a living as a singer. As for the make-or-break spontaneity that every musical romance desperately needs to survive, watching La La Land is like eating a dinner of pre-chewed food.
All of the above is on one side of the scale. La La Land is by all appearances a foolhardy attempt to regurgitate the big-screen musicals of the past, aiming squarely at a certain demographic and missing terribly. On the other hand, in its best moments, in those quiet scenes when Stone flashes her eyes at no one in particular, or when the essential loneliness of Hollywood asserts itself — the H’wood of Nathanael West, Raymond Chandler, Raymond Carver, or Elmore Leonard — Chazelle’s dream of finding love in Los Angeles can be seen briefly, in between the echoes of At Long Last Love, as the gentlest of tone poems. If we peer closely enough at La La Land, it’s there.