Every now and then, a movie musical will debut in theaters and define a milieu, striking a chord and captivating audiences worldwide. The Sound of Music, probably the most famous of them all (come on, you know what comes after doe, a deer, a female deer), made everyone want to have Julie Andrews as their personal governess—her sweet singing could repel even the most malevolent of Nazis. Grease taught every girl that being hopelessly devoted to the campus rebel could actually be the key to a successful romance—also, that leather jackets and cigarettes can be super sexy, especially on Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. Moulin Rouge, director Baz Luhrmann’s pastiche piece of modern pop songs and French bohemia, solidified Nicol Kidman’s status as an A-lister and wowed the MTV generation with its hopped-on-cocaine spectacles.
La La Land, director Damian Chazelle’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed Whiplash, doesn’t fall into this category. It’s far from it. It’s cute. It’s charming. But it’s nothing more than a candy-colored amalgam of old Hollywood tropes regurgitated for the Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone love team worshippers out there. Even if the film recently swept the Golden Globes, breaking the record for most awards won with its seven prizes, the movie musical does little to change the game. The word “overrated” comes to mind.
Mia (Emma Stone) is a barista and aspiring actress who just can’t catch a break. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a passionate jazz pianist frustrated with the steady descent of the musical genre he’s so committed to worshipping. The paths of these two not-so-jaded individuals cross, and of course, like typical romances, it isn’t love at first sight. It’s more like love at first tap dance, which this movie has just too many of. They have goals: she desires to become a superstar of stage and screen, he wants his own nightclub that reflects the Golden Age of Jazz. It’s all mind-numbing duets and traipsing around in technicolor until conflict arrives in the form of ambition. When Sebastian joins a pop band with an old friend named Keith (John Legend), his artistic integrity (and time) with Mia are compromised. Dreams are crushed, and their experiences together are reduced to fleeting daydreams—if you aren’t snoring before the end, you’ll understand what this means.
The potent chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone that was present in Crazy, Stupid, Love is missing here. Everyone is so used to Emma Stone playing the googly-eyed love interest that here, it falls flat, like the notes intended to serenade you into bliss. Ryan Gosling still plays the loser with enough magnetism to make you believe he’s indeed a legitimate jazz-man. Don’t blame them, they are adequate thespians. It’s the material that’s confused in its intentions and with what it truly wants to be. By using an excessive display of astounding production elements (great costumes, trippy set pieces, and dizzying camera tricks), the film manages to hide its flaws. Until, that is, all the bells and whistles become too loud to function properly.
Were this a simple exercise of romance versus ambition, La La Land would’ve stood a chance at cementing itself as an above average display of filmmaking talent. However, its cinematic drive claims to fuel the reawakening of the days when the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers filled sets with their presence, when Bogart and Bergman reigned supreme, a bygone era of now-unfamiliar sensibilities. Those are pretty big shoes to fill. One of the most interesting lines of the movie comes from John Legends’ Keith, when he is convincing Sebastian of how jazz needs to evolve for a younger audience.
“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist?” he says.
This movie should be asking itself the same question.
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Spoilers ahead—read at your own risk