There is a scene in La La Land where Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, on their first date, visit the Griffith Observatory (this is after a screening of Rebel Without a Cause, which is also set there). The two have no trouble getting inside the closed building, and operate all the contraptions. Surrounded by a dome of stars, they lift from the ground and dance in mid-air.
This scene says a lot about La La Land, most of it good. It is unabashedly nostalgic, unapologetically romantic, and doesn’t have a bit of gravitas. But it is thoroughly enjoyable, and those who don’t want things to get heavy at the movies will enjoy it more than those who do.
The film was written and directed by Damien Chazelle, even before he made Whiplash. That film got him some credibility, so it was somewhat easier to get an old-fashioned musical with new songs made. Almost all musicals these days are based on Broadway shows or use well-known songs–Chazelle was taking a huge risk. He also took a risk in using two stars who are not known for their singing and dancing.
The movie starts with a traffic jam in L.A., and everyone starts singing and dancing. Two of the motorists have a little road rage. One is a barista and aspiring actress (Stone), the other is a jazz pianist (Gosling). They will meet cute a few times–once when he is fired from his job for playing jazz at a restaurant and not Christmas carols, and at a party where he is reduced to wearing a red vinyl jacket and play ’80s hits.
He worships classic jazz, even owning a stool belonging to Hoagy Carmichael;she struggles at auditions, enduring rude behavior while she’s in the middle of a crying scene. The two will fall in love while encouraging each other’s dreams, even while the process of achieving them will drive them apart.
In an original music, there are a couple of things that are keys to success. One is the songs, of course. They were written by Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. While you may not be humming them after you leave the theater, they are engaging enough, especially a ballad Stone sings during an audition (called “Audition”). Stone is the better singer, Gosling the better dancer, and while the film hearkens back to the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, these two are no match for the old pros. La La Land is more like the French film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, who had an equally musically handicapped Catherine Deneuve.
If Stone is not the greatest singer in the world, she does give the film most of its energy. She is a consummate comedic actress (she shows this every time she hosts Saturday Night Live) and makes us feel the character’s every emotion. Gosling, while not quite as interesting, acquits himself well, especially considering he didn’t know how to play piano before the filming began. The film was supposed to star Miles Teller and Emma Watson, which would have been interesting but not as good.
Chazelle also chooses a very colorful palette. Stone’s dresses, designed by Mary Zophres, encompass almost all of the primary colors, and Los Angeles is depicted as someplace magical (Stone has to walk through Hollywood late at night and not only is there no danger, there are no people–this is not a realistic film). I’m also amazed, and somewhat awestruck, that Chazelle at no time utilizes the Hollywood sign, a major cliche in any film about the place.
Will this film win the Oscar for Best Picture? It might, if voters want to go for something escapist to retreat from the horrible year we’ve just been through. Though there is conflict, and some will find the ending a let-down, it is an ode to how movies have always existed in the minds of dreamers, to take us away from problems, not to put them before us.