There's nothing in "La La Land" that quite lives up to its opening number, where a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway overpass erupts into a colorful dance number, full of whirling motion and a diverse array of performers. There was no better way to signal the film's intentions to be a movie where a present day romance follows the form of, and is subject to the magical realist rules of Hollywood Golden Age musicals. Directed by "Whiplash" wunderkind Damien Chazelle, with music and songs by Justin Hurwitz, "La La Land" is far more interested in being a nostalgic throwback than something original, and it's pretty good at it too, but I also found the conceit a little limiting.
Jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and actress Mia (Emma Stone) are both struggling to achieve their dreams Los Angeles. They meet by chance and fall in love, but their ambitions cause clashes threaten to break them apart. Though the characters are very modern, their problems are anything but, and the film strives for a timeless feel. There are nods and references to Hollywood's past everywhere you look. Mia's apartment is covered in old movie posters, and she works on the Warner Brothers lot, just a stone's throw from an old set of "Casablanca." The film's other preoccupation is with classical jazz music, which Sebastian is obsessed with, and "La La Land" devotes a good chunk of the second act to. The couple's passions combine beautifully in multiple musical numbers that punctuate their tumultuous romance. More than the happy MGM classics, it's more reminiscent of the French New Wave musicals like "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "Young Girls of Rochefort," which were more emotionally fraught and often ended in tragedy.
The thing is, though Gosling and Stone are very well matched, are putting in a lot of effort, and do a passable imitation of the old greats, they clearly don't quite have the vocal or terpsichorean chops to live up to the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. I don't know enough about music to tell if Gosling's turns on the piano are any better, though at least on that front John Legend was recruited to help shore up the big numbers in a supporting role. So while it's fun to see Gosling and Stone dancing through the clouds in a fantasy sequence, or the big finale where they do a big dream ballet number staged like an old Broadway production, there's always a feeling that they're imitating more than inhabiting these scenes. Fortunately, the central romance does work very well, and Stone in particular turns in a performance that will certainly put her in awards contention. It's been a while since we've had a feel-good romantic film that's hit the popular consciousness quite so hard, and it's a nice thing to see.
I was very impressed by the music and production design. The songs are endlessly hummable, particularly the opener, "Another Day in the Sun" and the main theme, "City of Stars." The jazz pieces are eclectic, evocative, and a lot of fun. The film is so inviting to look at too, presenting a dream city free of smog and refuse that could only exist in the movies. Many Los Angeles landmarks are gorgeously brought to screen in sumptuous technicolor, and Emma Stone is dressed in a succession of eye-poppingly colorful dresses. If nothing else, the spectacle is worth the price of admission. However, as lovely as it all is, I'm afraid that "La La Land" ultimately isn't to my taste. I'd have much rather seen a film that was more in line with the opening number, something that explored Los Angeles and its inhabitants as they are here and how, with all the rougher edges intact.
For what it is, "La La Land" is executed almost perfectly, and should be a good time for most musical lovers. This has all the earmarks of a passion project for everyone involved. And there's plenty for non-musical fans to enjoy between Stone and Gosling's performances and all the cinematic eye-candy. I don't begrudge anyone for falling for its charms, and honestly remain a little disappointed that the same spell simply didn't work on me.