Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are kindred spirits at similar places in their personal and creative lives. Young enough to still have attainable dreams, but old enough for life to squelch the possibility of those dreams being realized. This conflict, in addition to the love that Mia and Ryan have for one another, is central to Damien Chazelle's La La Land (2016), a musical with emotional and formal ambitions too great for the script Chazelle has crafted. That is not to say that this film is not enjoyable or well made, but that it is narratively lopsided as La La Land prioritizes trying to be a musical that is both traditional (like those of studio films from the 1950s) and revolutionary (like the Nouvelle vague's forays into the genre). Although such an attempt is entertaining, when a film's story is so thin, the musical numbers begin to work against the plot while still pushing it along.
Working as a barista on the lot of Warner Brothers, Mia aspires to be an actress like the stars who visit her coffee shop or the icons from classic films she saw as a child with her aunt – the posters for their films, ranging from The Palm Beach Story (1942) to The Killers (1946), adorn the walls of Mia's home that she shares with like-minded talents. Auditioning for a variety of parts (no matter how distant from Mia they may be), she just hopes to have her big break (or anything). Similarly, Sebastian is struggling to make ends meet as he pursues his version of his dream without compromise. He's a lover of jazz with respect for the artists who came before him, and is a talented pianist himself. As the two of them cope with reality, Mia and Sebastian quickly begin running into one another at a variety of places and the stars align themselves in their favor.
This is where problems with the film begin to arise, as the romantic relationship our protagonists fall into reveals itself to be as lacking in substance as the aesthetic of the film (which I will elaborate on further). Their love is predictable, and it's reliant (to an extent) on cliché, so that the audience can recognize the emotional signposts and place feelings onto those scenes rather than having actual feelings conjured up from a scene unique to the lives of these characters. Still, La La Land is charming and Stone and Gosling's performances are highly charismatic, and they undeniably have an on-screen chemistry, but that only perpetuates the cliché. There's seemingly no need for Mia and Sebastian to have an experience beyond looking like they're experiencing something.
Chazelle takes the film, narratively, in realistic directions, but it's merely the directions without the actions to support them. The magnetism between these two creatives and the struggles they face together and apart from one another feel legitimate, but just because they happen doesn't mean that they've been emotionally earned. They're pushed together by fate too quickly, pulled away too swiftly, and yet the parts still kind of work. Were the film not separated by seasons, as it progresses through an entire year (starting in winter), the film would feel like it has more at stake by having a plot that can facilitate causal relationships from one action to the next. Instead, La La Land suffers by choosing to adhere to realistic passages of time instead of embracing the more fantastical elements that Chazelle only flirts with.
Perhaps the obvious film to compare La La Land to is Jacques Demy's colorful, musical masterpiece The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), but La La Land is even closer narratively to Martin Scorsese's New York, New York (1977). Robert De Niro plays the saxophone, Liza Minnelli sings, and love is in the air as they try to make their relationship work. However, the difference between Scorsese's film and Chazelle's La La Land is that New York, New York is emotionally taxing as it allows for characters to experience real and original conflict whilst alluding to musicals by Vincente Minnelli and others.
Featuring colorful wardrobes and scenery, extended long takes to highlight choreography, flashy editing and a creative use of camera movement, La La Land delivers more on the form of a musical than it does as a musical itself. Much like the characters, the film hits its marks based off of what an audience is conditioned to expect from a musical, but it's not lending much to the audience in original technique or visual stimulation. Aesthetically and structurally referencing the dream ballet from the conclusion of Minnelli's An American In Paris (1951), or echoing tracking shots of Deneuve walking on the sidewalk in The Young Girls of Rochefort, La La Land appropriates these references well, but what could be appropriated from La La Land in a decade? The songs are nice, and the primary tune ("City of Stars") is quite memorable, but the music is not always cohesive or tonally anchored to the film.
As a dedicated fan of films by Vincente Minnelli and Jacques Demy, La La Land cannot deliver experiences that I haven't already seen in wonderful and eccentric musicals that deal with love and destiny (which is what most musicals deal with). Regardless, La La Land is still a very enjoyable film to watch, but the ingredients have more potential than the product that is actually achieved. Playing it safe from beginning to end, there's little at stake because the film's narrative structure has the action spread too thin over too large a passage of time. Still, as the musical becomes a genre that is seen less frequently in contemporary cinema, there is something special about it just for existing – of course, were the film not as charming or well-acted, simply existing wouldn't cut it.
My rating: 3/5