As 2016 comes to a close, so many of us are thankful that it is over. But 2016 gave us at least 127 minutes of pure joy in the form of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. It’s a musical that belongs in the 1960s and begs its audience to accept the rules of the genre in a world where frivolous flights of fancy seem inappropriate. How can we accept a musical in 2016 when there is so much reality that needs to be faced? Chazelle doesn’t care about that. The 31-year-old Rhode Island native rejects reality and substitutes it with one we should all want to live in.
In the world of La La Land, Los Angeles is a bright place, full of hopes and dreams that still can come true. We find Mia (Emma Stone) working as a barista at the Warner Bros. lot, dreaming of becoming an actress. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist hoping to single-handedly save the genre by opening his own club. The two fall in love and push each others dreams, ultimately – and unknowingly – pushing themselves apart in the process.
Unfortunately, this is really the whole story. Unlike the many musicals Chazelle is kneeling at the altars of, he has declined to give Mia and Sebastian support systems or anyone else to talk to. Chazelle wants to give us the An American In Paris for 2016, but he forgot to give us Oscar Levant’s character too. He pleads for us to put La La Land in the same company as Singin’ In The Rain, but there’s no one for Donald O’Connor to play. Most importantly, he wants this to be The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but there’s no Roland Cassard. It’s West Side Story without the Sharks and Jets.
La La Land is a two-person show only, even though there are potential supporting characters. John Legend’s Keith, who gives Sebastian a steady gig in his pop band, has too little screentime to make an impression. Mia’s roommates are just stock background characters. By robbing the film of support, Gosling and Stone have to be everything in this movie. They are up to the task for sure, but there’s something missing without someone for either of them to talk to.
Even though Chazelle is the only writer on this film, the vast pool of movies he’s pulling references makes it feel scatterbrained. “A Lovely Night” was ripped from an Astaire/Rodgers musical. “Another Day of Sun” opens the movie like a Busby Berkeley picture. The “Epilogue” comes from the finale of a Gene Kelly movie (complete with painted sets referencing the An American In Paris ballet). “City of Stars,” the heartbreaking ballad that glues the movie together, is as tender as anything from Jacques Demy’s films. These set pieces are all great individually and sends chills up the spine of any musical lover, but taken together, it makes La La Land more of a “greatest hits” medley than an original piece.
That’s what’s frustrating about La La Land. In the one scene that Legend steals from Gosling, he chastises Sebastian for being a jazz traditionalist and not wanting to break new ground. La La Land is so closely tied to the musicals of the past that it doesn’t really do anything new in the genre.
Maybe La La Land doesn’t really have to do anything new. It’s still enjoyable, with two attractive leads who surely would have been stars at the height of the musical’s popularity. It shows what musicals can do – bring us joy in a year of despair, get us singing in the theaters and clapping at a screen in the end – and succeeds in that sense. The “Epilogue” sequence is breathtaking, Stone’s performance is magnetic and Gosling’s charms make him perfect for this. I’ll even still buy the soundtrack because the songs by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul are fantastic. “City of Stars” better win the Oscar for Best Original Song.
La La Land dreams of bringing the musical back, but for that to succeed, it must evolve with the times. I love musicals desperately and want to see more of them. La La Land makes me hopeful that a future young film wunderkind like Chazelle will see this. The filmmaker should be inspired – not to make a musical like this, but one that builds on the foundation of musicals that have gone before it. Take the form, deconstruct it and make something new. (And please, please make a musical that’s not about showbiz.)