There are countless ways as to how La La Land could’ve easily failed. In many respects, the film’s stubborn idealism could’ve felt artificial instead of inspirational; its homage to old Hollywood could’ve felt corny instead of charming; and its characters could’ve felt cartoonish instead of likeable. Optimistic films in general have to strike a delicate balance between being hopeful without being naïve, and Damien Chazelle’s romantic musical manages to do it with enough grace and dignity that forces you to ignore some of its faults.
La La Land is a film that doesn’t really belong in the modern age. Much like one of its lead characters, it’s a film that wants to stay in the good old days. The film’s endless admiration of classic Hollywood films isn’t just apparent in the many tributes that it presents. It’s a part of its very DNA, which is both refreshing and disappointing. Refreshing because cinema is in very short supply of good, positive movies, and disappointing because La La Land doesn’t really do much with its love of nostalgia apart from letting it dictate its style. Almost all of La La Land’s technical aspects, from the costumes to the cinematography and even its choreography, is a mere imitation of how it was done before. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but the film ends up relying on it too much throughout its duration. Instead of adapting the classic sensibilities of old Hollywood films and musicals for a modern age, it simply reverts back to it.
This style definitely has its charms, and the film isn’t lacking in terms of breathtaking visuals thanks to it, but it has a tendency to feel a bit forced. It draws unwanted attention to the desires of the filmmakers where it feels like they’re simply taking you to a visual tour of classic Hollywood musicals like West Side Story and Singin’ in the Rain. Instead of being captivated by the visuals and the production, I found myself comparing it to the classics and where La La Land falls short.
To make things worse, neither Ryan Gosling nor Emma Stone have the theatrical ability to push the musical scenes into show-stopping heights. They’re fine actors with great chemistry in the film, but when it comes to singing and dancing, they almost have no screen presence at all. Gosling mumbles his way around the lyrics and no matter how hard Emma Stone tries, she simply lacks the showmanship to carry a musical. Any time a musical number features one or both of them, it ends up feeling like you’re watching a rehearsal instead of the final product. There’s just no wow factor in their performances, and the most exciting song and dance number in the entire film (which takes place in the first ten minutes) doesn’t include either of them at all. I wouldn’t be surprised if the composers and choreographers had to adjust the songs and routines to the actors’ limited capabilities, which is disappointing.
Thankfully, the film is much more than its musical numbers. At the heart of the film are two characters who are both trying to live their dreams. Seb is a jazz pianist and Mia is an actress, and together they endure the struggles and compromises in their quest to achieve their hopes and desires. It’s a simple story, but told in a heartfelt and eloquent manner. What Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone lack in singing and dancing prowess, they more than make up for with their moving portrayals of their characters. Both of them add an unmistakable depth and likeability in what would otherwise be one-dimensional characters that belong in a made-for-TV Disney movie. Most important of all, the chemistry between the two actors make their romance in the film believable, which adds a significant emotional weight in the film’s ending.
Despite my disappointment in the lead actors’ showmanship abilities, the music itself is magnificent. The film bravely goes into long stretches of time with nothing but a musical score to accompany its visuals, and the result is electrifying. Composer Justin Hurwitz and director Damien Chazelle expertly use music to highlight the emotional beats of the film as well as the development of the lead characters and their romance. It also helps that the two most musically impressive scenes of the film (one takes place in the Griffith Observatory and the other is at the very end) doesn’t require either of the lead actors to sing.
Although it frequently ends up feeling like a nostalgia tour of old Hollywood, Damien Chazelle’s profound understanding of the characters elevate La La Land above whatever shortcomings it stumbles upon in other aspects. Its mature and sophisticated handling of what could’ve been a banal story is a great reminder that films can still inspire regardless of how overdone or simplistic a premise might be.