Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) and Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) at the Griffith Observatory. Image via Summit Entertainment
Director/Screenwriter: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend
Disdain for nostalgic art is in vogue, but I don’t buy it. Nostalgia is a fine thing, a tool among many – that is, until it blunts the artist’s other implements, makes the artist reverent to the point of mere imitation without interrogation. La La Land, Chazelle’s shallow tribute to Michel Legrand and the musicals of 40s and 50s Hollywood, falls victim.
Sebastian and Mia. Image via Summit Entertainment
The film follows two ~Hollywood dreamers~, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Mia is an aspiring actress and sometime playwright, Sebastian is a struggling pianist and an insufferable vintage jazz snob. Mia wants to be a famous actress, Sebastian wants to own a jazz club. They’re attracted to each other despite initial differences, Mia runs out on her dull boyfriend to be with Sebastian (an act, in true rom-com fashion, portrayed to be completely without ramifications) and then their dreams threaten to drive them apart. An unremarkable romantic plot, essentially.
Mia, Alexis (Jessica Rothe), Caitlin (Sonoya Mizuno) and Tracy (Callie Hernandez). Image via Summit Entertainment
The film’s fatal flaw is this: it pretends to portray the real-world difficulties of working toward an artistic aspiration, (she has to work at a coffee shop! Gasp! He has to play in a subpar new wave cover band! Mon Dieu!) but soon lapses into the same insipid platitudes about ‘following your dreams’ that feed the Hollywood meat grinder year after year. Dreams are an absolute good, and work that is anything less than 100% fidelitous to those dreams is an absolute betrayal. Sebastian joins a successful band that plays ‘impure’ jazz, and Mia is portrayed as right for shaming him for it. Neither find any real economic hardship in their endeavours; they eat comfortably, live in roomy and gorgeous houses. Eventually, both get their exact wishes. No compromises taken, no sacrifices made.
Sebastian. Image via Summit Entertainment
The film cultivates some charm. Stone and Gosling have great energy together, though it’s too often choked by Chazelle’s formalism. The music is fine, despite uninspired lyrics, and one melody is used intelligently in little diegetic and non-diegetic snatches to recall the central relationship. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren has evidently studied Jacques Demy, Jack Cardiff, et al. closely; the film is gorgeous. The coda, in which Chazelle presents a rapturous panorama of cinematic tributes and Old Hollywood razzle-dazzle, is, I admit, likely one of the greatest scenes of the year. But all this is not enough.
Keith (John Legend), Mia and Sebastian. Image via Summit Entertainment
The dreamy old Hollywood musicals – the whirling rags-to-riches plots – were the product of an era where the American economy was booming and opportunity seemed boundless. The age we live in now – of widespread alienation, of savage inequalities that only grow more savage, of terrible debt and economic failure – finds these narratives lacking. La La Land tries to reconcile its antiquated idealism with the economic realism of today, but it finds only dissonance and irrelevance. We live in 2017. We can no longer be content to be served our happy endings because we believe hard enough. We must properly earn them, which necessarily involves compromises, many of which are painful – or else, learn to find them in our quieter places.
Instead: Watch 1954’s A Star is Born, a complex and mature musical drama about relationships and success, made in the cinematic era that La La Land draws from – you see, Chazelle? Nostalgia is no excuse. Alternatively, Once, a modern musical romance that captures the realities that La La Land only counterfeits, and through this finds true poignancy.
2 out of 5 stars
– Caed Scott