If nostalgia rules the day, Damien Chazelle's "La La Land" is likely to clean up during awards season. The film is a musical written for the screen in a time where such a thing is exceedingly rare, and Chazelle takes cues from the Astaire-Rogers musicals of the '30s ("Top Hat," "Swing Time"), the classic Gene Kelly films of the '50s (Vincente Minnelli's "An American in Paris," Kelly and Stanley Donen's "Singin' in the Rain"), and especially from Jacques Demy's romantic '60s musicals "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "The Young Girls of Rochefort." So lovely is "La La Land" in the abstract that one wishes the film lived up to any of its inspirations.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as Sebastian and Mia, a struggling pianist and aspiring actress, respectively. He dreams of opening his own jazz club, while she dreams of finding work that will allow her to leave her barista job. The two fall in love and support each other, but failure and compromise test their relationship.
Gosling and Stone have terrific chemistry (see: their segment of "Crazy. Stupid. Love."... skip the rest of it), and the best sections of "La La Land" are their breezy flirtations, him expounding on his love of jazz, her on her adoration of classic film. Gosling is a bit smug in his role, but his best scenes see his rigid view of music and ego getting in the way of his success. Stone's emotional openness, meanwhile, is her greatest asset, her wide eyes and expressive mouth registering every bit of Mia's disappointment when an audition goes poorly or her one-woman show flops.
Neither actor is an experienced musical performer, and Gosling's voice in particular is fine but a bit thin, but there's a charming ungainliness to the film's singing and dancing reminiscent of Woody Allen's own nostalgic musical, "Everyone Says I Love You." The songs range from catchy and upbeat ("Another Day of Sun") to charmingly flirty ("A Lovely Night") to heartrending ("Audition"), and the two might have fit perfectly in a musical directed more like Chazelle's charming (if not entirely successful) debut, the musical "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench."
Unfortunately, the direction is closer in form to the hammering approach in his previous film, "Whiplash." Chazelle swings the camera around, whipping up a frenzy that was perfectly suited to a thriller about two musically talented sociopaths but feels a bit exhausting when paired with an ostensibly swooning romance. The director overexerts himself, focusing on his own virtuosity in a way that clashes with the performance style and sometimes obscures their work (particularly in a traffic jam dance where his focus on getting everything in an "impressive" one-take renders much of the dancing incomprehensible), and stamps out any semblance of spontaneity in performance.
Where his direction is overemphatic, Chazelle's scenario is underimagined. Neither of his protagonists transcend generic starry-eyed dreamer archetypes on paper (though Stone works mightily to compensate), and the world around them is fuzzily conceived, a thinly-sketched backdrop more than an environment.
"La La Land" is moderately endearing, but it moves only in its final scenes, in which what's lost is finally articulated a bit too late. That's a far cry from Demy's musicals, which sketch a grand world of compromise and loss in middle-class French life, or of Martin Scorsese's 1977 throwback musical "New York, New York," which similarly sees two creatives come together and break apart with more passion and pain. "La La Land" shares those earlier films' sincerity, but it lacks their soul.