“That’s L.A.—they worship everything and they value nothing,” sighs Ryan Gosling’s La La Land character Sebastian. I’m not sure if this is a critique or a mission statement. Perhaps it’s both. Certainly, a movie that forces you to endure Gosling and Emma Stone sing multiple songs is trading in the crass depths of celebrity culture. We listen to these people sing not because they are good—they aren’t, their voices are plain and they approach their less-than-memorable material apprehensively, almost like they’re embarrassed to be there—but because they are stars. La La Land assumes that we like these actors so much that we’ll want to watch them sing and dance, regardless of their aptitude. It assumes that what we value comes second to our worship of these A-listers. It assumes that L.A. is the epicenter of its audience’s moral universe.
That might not be a correct assumption, but it’s an understandable one. La La Land is an ode to Hollywood as much as it is an ode to these kind of odes—director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) has said he was inspired by the likes of vintage MGM musicals like Singin’ in the Rain as well as the films of French director Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort). The latter feels more apt, as Demy’s musicals also prominently featured actors who weren’t necessarily song-and-dance virtuosos. Demy paired charm and chemistry with his dazzling technical proficiency and impeccable visual taste to create films that felt simultaneously down to earth and out of this world—and accordingly exhausting at times.
Chazelle gets off to an admirable start with the first two La La Land numbers featuring the sort of long, unbroken shots that weave in and out of bodies in various stages of flight. The movie opens in traffic, as extras get out of their cars on an L.A. freeway and rhapsodize “Another Day of Sun.” It’s practically begging you to like it, and at first it makes a good case for why you should. In the second number, “Someone in the Crowd,” the roommates of Stone’s character Mia cajole her into getting ready for a party—the song continues through their arrival.
La La Land’s production is impressive initially, and then it drops off into a series of duets and solos featuring Gosling and Stone once Sebastian and Mia meet and begin their inevitable courtship. The songs become more sporadic over its running time—La La Land sets way too high of a pace for itself to keep up with and it peters out within a half hour. Coupled with an entirely conventional, tedious love story that’s less interested in the mechanics of Sebastian and Mia’s mutual attraction than beholden to it, La La Land settles into utter mediocrity. (Sample exchange between Sebastian and Mia—Her: “You’re a real—what’s the word I’m looking for?” Him: “Knight in shining armor?” Her: “Weirdo.”)
La La Land never seems much concerned about justifying its own existence, it just coasts on your pre-programmed interests. Theres style and there’s substance, but neither of its qualities helps the other transcend—forgettable songs sung competently fail to elevate a banal and uncomplicated love story, and vice versa. Sure, Gosling and Stone are charming and they have chemistry, I suppose, but La La Land adds nothing to the musical forms it salutes besides a more naturalistic sense of acting and some self-aware winking that’s fairly standard in contemporary film, anyway. At one point, while workshopping her one-woman show, Mia worries, “It feels too nostalgic to me. Are people going to like it?” Sebastian responds, “Fuck ‘em.” That scans as both defensive and an arrogant misreading of La La Land’s shortcomings. This movie’s nostalgic movie-musical flair isn’t a problem in its own right, but it’s also not a solution to its storytelling mediocrity.
And so we watch as these characters attempt to negotiate their desire to be together with their starving-artist statuses (he’s a musician, she’s an actor) and the idealism, ambition, and distractions that follow. Have you not yet had your fill of dreamers who have superficially complicated feelings about the fame that comes with success? Do you specifically enjoy meditations on the nature of fate as it applies to the romance of two fictional characters (who are being guided by an actual human)? Well, La La Land might be the movie for you.
It’s lit well and it generally looks good (though the tendency to group primary colors together, whether in a single outfit of Mia’s or spread out over a few characters who appear on screen at the same time, feels like remedial Jacques Tati aping). But La La Land only concerns itself with shining on the surface. It is, thus, mostly innocuous. Mostly. Mostly. Sebastian’s narrative is fueled by his jazz purism—it factors into his first real interaction with Mia, he dreams of opening a real jazz club one day and, in the movie’s most inspired bit of dialogue, he passionately argues Mia out of her jazz-hating ways (jazz, he argues, is “conflict and it’s compromise and it’s new every time”). When Sebastian is offered a spot in a band by an old friend Keith (John Legend), he begrudgingly takes it. A converted Mia’s eyes are horrified when she attends his first gig with his new group and hears the EDM-jazz fusion that works so well commercially (per this movie, at least) but is ultimately a compromise of Sebastian’s refined taste. Sebastian continues to hold onto his dream of owning a space that hosts real jazz, and the positioning of the white man as the ultimate savior of jazz felt like a scaled-down riff on the outsider-as-messiah trope within the likes of John Carter and Dune. It’s very much a white fantasy.
But that’s showbiz! La La Land doesn’t seem concerned with being very much more than two hours of entertainment. Those who go to the movies to escape may find themselves seduced by its slick presentation of shallowness and celebrity worship. Those who go to engage with the world, I suspect, will be less impressed. I saw this movie a little over a week after Trump was elected and far from knocking me out of my funk, I was plunged further. The whole thing felt like such a waste of time. I squinted at the screen, trying in vain to find a point.