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Review: La La Land (2016)

La La Land (2016)

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Premise: A struggling jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) try to make their way in Hollywood. After a series of false starts, the two of them begin a relationship that is complicated by their careers.

What Works: La La Land is a nostalgic throwback to the golden age of Hollywood musicals, when studios produced titles such as Singin’ in the Rain and Yankee Doodle Dandy. The movie is full of references to the titles of that era and the affection that the filmmakers have for that kind of movie is infectious. This is a very charming film, much like The Artist, and it is very enjoyable to watch. La La Land succeeds in large part because of its cast. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play the leads as a jazz pianist and an actress who are struggling to establish themselves in show business and the two actors are a lot of fun to watch together. They have a rare rapport that is on par with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. Although it isn’t necessarily a comedy, there are a lot more laughs to be found in La La Land than in a lot of straightforward comic movies. This humanizes the characters and their witty banter makes the couple fun to be around. Love stories succeed if the audience wants to see the couple get together and live happily ever after. Gosling and Stone have that quality and for much of the movie it’s enough to watch them dance and flirt across the screen. La La Land is also impressive as a piece of cinema and particularly as a piece of musical filmmaking. Musicals offer filmmakers the opportunity to do interesting and innovative things with the form and La La Land is very well shot with many beautiful looking vistas and musical sequences that are expertly choreographed, shot, and edited together. The look of the film incorporates references to classic Hollywood, mixing live locations and the artifice of the backlot, and the filmmakers weave those pieces together in a vibrant backdrop for our characters. As a movie about performers working in and around studios and stages, La La Land inserts some smart ideas about creativity and nostalgia. The pianist, played by Ryan Gosling, is obsessed with the history of jazz and tries to preserve something whose time has passed. This picture gets self-reflexive about its own nostalgia, acknowledging that it can kill the creative possibilities that keep art and music vibrant and relevant.

What Doesn’t: Despite how charming Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone can be, they are barely adequate singers. It’s an ironic fault since La La Land is so enamored by classic Hollywood musicals. In many of those films, the vocal performances by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars were dubbed over by professional singers and the filmmakers of La La Land should have done the same here. Gosling and Stone’s voices tend to be airy and lack a fullness of sound and are sometimes lost in the instrumentation. La La Land also suffers from a lightweight story. There is virtually no conflict in this movie. The two lead characters meet and fall in love and then spend much of the movie being adorable. The charisma of Gosling and Stone is enough to buoy the first half of La La Land but about halfway through the picture their cuteness wears thin. La La Land introduces some conflict late in the picture but it isn’t carried out though the story. And in the ending in film jumps ahead several years and in effect skips over what would have been the most dramatically interesting part of the relationship. The lack of conflict goes hand in hand with an absence of stakes. There’s nothing on the line except maybe the character’s dreams of making a career in show business but even that remains vague.

Bottom Line: La La Land is a lightweight but fun mix of music and romance. The film isn’t particularly heavy but it is an impressive piece of style and showmanship with two agreeable performers at the center of it.

Episode: #630 (January 15, 2017)