With glowing five star reviews coming from most mainstream media, musical La La Land has been billed an early Oscars contender and already bagged a record number of Golden Globes. You’ve probably seen it on the news and wondered what all the fuss is about. So is it actually that good?
From the offset, the film is a fine slice of fun. Commuters gridlocked on LA’s highway go from honking to honky-tonk, leaping out of their cars in a brilliantly choreographed and beautifully shot flash mob. The opening showcases the potential the modern movie musical has to captivate in its carefully crafted, yet apparently nonchalant cinematography, transforming apathy and road rage into rooftop dance routine.
It is the setting for the forgettable first meet of our two stars. Ryan Gosling’s jazz pianist Seb and Emma Stone’s wannabe actress Mia exchange a middle finger and a grimace in a rush hour romance that does not live long in the film’s memory. While the plot, like most within the genre, can be written on the back of a beer mat in a jazz bar, it is an abortive love affair that smacks of the reality of romance.
Stone and Gosling are strongest when portraying the pitfalls and passions of the early stages of a burgeoning love. In truth, when the pair are acting. They play off one another with an easy abandon that reaches its comedic apogee in the accidental architecture of their early interactions.
If 2016 was a year that saw the tragic loss of so much creative talent, then 2017 seems set to be a year of escapism. Arriving just a week before the Donald is inaugurated, La La Land taps into that universal desire to put off the inevitable for a few hours. Yet the film feels flat. It lacks the visual extravaganza and magical spark on which we all want to feast. Many a critic has lauded its opulence, but it is neither as stunning nor as uplifting as you might expect.
Los Angeles lacks something as a backdrop, though cinematographer Linus Sandgren achieves some elegant set pieces and hazy segues that instil an authentically whimsical feel of the old-fashioned Hollywood heyday. The characters are locked by an overarching, realistic sense of fate that inhibits rather than releases. If, as Stone suggests, “this is one for the dreamers,” it is a dream that destiny does not fully realise.
As a viewer, you may lose sight of Trump Tower for a tender two hours, but this is an inward rather than outward escapism. In its self-reflective quality, the film is an ode to conservatism. La La Land looks back on the hallowed halls of Hollywood as opposed to thinking forward into the future. The primary swooning scene takes place at the Griffith Observatory where scenes from pop culture classic Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean, were shot in the 50s. Director Damien Chazelle presents a language of love deeply imbibed in early Hollywood, expressing a message through reference to past greatness.
It is a narcissistic nostalgia trip that won’t bark racism or tweet abuse, but La La Land is neither acutely innovative nor does it delve deep into unchartered cinematic territory. In its meandering plot, it lacks the power and punch that made Chazelle’s previous release Whiplash such a filmic feast. If the director’s design is to showcase the potential of a genre that has often been derided as naff or superficial, it seems strange to select two Hollywood stars who, though well-rehearsed, do not boast the spontaneous dynamism needed to express themselves in song and dance. Though Stone makes a better fist of it, Gosling is often flat and they fail to reignite the effortless splendour that made early musicals so captivating.
It lacks the depth and quality to cry out: “The resurrection of the musical has come!” The film may deliver a welcome dose of escapism during a particularly obdurate season of January blues, but does not reach any further to attain the immortality many critics have wholeheartedly heralded. It is as though the stars fluttering around reviews of La La Land have sucked the light and life out of the film. ‘Make the American Musical Great Again’ could be Chazelle’s slogan, but on this evidence, the director has fallen short.
‘La La Land’ is currently showing at the Gala cinema.
Photograph: Dale Robinette