La La Land
Starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash follow-up, a musical set to the tune of modern day life in Los Angeles, didn’t put me under whatever spell early festival goers experienced. The rarity of a big budget musical is always something to celebrate. Chazelle once again delivers an original screenplay and carries over the jazz theme. There are beautiful scenes throughout La La Land that briefly captivate, while others jarringly disproportionate, pushed my focus out of the story back into the theater seat. Oscar nominees Gosling (Lars and the Real Girl) and Stone (Birdman) have delightful chemistry, their vocal talent above average, but I never for a second forget they were Gosling and Stone. Chazelle’s love letter to Los Angeles never sucked me into the story partly because of all the various gimmicks he uses.
The moment struggling actress Mia (Stone) heard Sebastian (Gosling) playing his heart out on the piano, she was captivated by him. The second time they run into each other, Mia calls the arrogant musician out and their relationship begins. Like any other new found love, theirs enters a spring season of song and dance as they harmonize and move together supporting each other’s goals and ambitions. Los Angeles is a town of disappointments as much as it is dreams come true. As life plays out, Sebastian takes a well-paying job that isn’t exactly his dream, while Mia begins to wonder if all the audition disappointment will be worth the sacrifice.
There are beautiful scenes throughout La La Land that briefly captivate, while others jarringly disproportionate, pushed my focus out of the story back into the theater seat.
The much talked about opening freeway number, along with a rousing dream sequence finale, bookend the best that La La Land has to offer. The production design, during the moments where the film embraces the stage musical, are the most captivating. Chazelle and his cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle) go for the long continuous takes and even the seamless shots that demonstrate a more theatrical, rehearsed and choreographed style. Yet it’s the style I can’t quite put my finger on, because for long periods we get engrossed in the relationship drama between the characters, then momentarily they become musical. I found this disorder distracting and encumbering, never more so than when the characters begin floating and dancing in space.
While Gosling and Stone have captivating moments, I was never dazzled by their performances. I didn’t find either worthy of chucking awards at, especially compared to other awards contenders. Stone’s strongest scene comes in an audition near the end where her vocals are finally unrestrained, hitting notes she hasn’t previously. The shot is done in close-up which makes great use of her expressive eyes. Gosling doesn’t do anything he hasn’t done before, or better, in other films. He is his charming and usually talented self. When John Legend’s characters band The Messengers finally perform a full-length song to an audience, including Mia, I found their “We Can Start a Fire,” the most enjoyable, toe tapping song in the entire film, which might not have been their intention.
Despite some ambitious and innovative technical work, La La Land didn’t have the emotional impact I had hoped for.