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La La Land, the new musical about aspiring Angelenos, opens on a wintry 84 degree day in stalled bumper to bumper traffic on an L.A. freeway.
So, of course, to pass the time, everyone begins to sing and dance. And it’s absolutely wonderful, a marvelous moment of agile bodies twisting and turning, on car roofs and cement barriers, as the camera glides around and amongst them, as if carried by a graceful wind.
The basic story revolves around aspiring actress Mia (spunky Emma Stone, if that’s not redundant) and aspiring jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, perhaps the cinema’s best representative of metrosexuality), an artist so pure he refuses to join a music group because he wants to open his own club where he can play jazz the way he wants, not the way someone else wants him to.
They have trouble meeting cute, and once they do and romance blooms, they have trouble breaking up.
The strongest aspect of the movie is the melodic and lovely lyrical score, a series of songs that never hits a false note. The movie really comes alive the moment the characters start singing and the musicians start playing. (The score is by Justin Hurwitz who also did the score for Whiplash and Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench.)
And it takes place in a candy-colored Los Angeles that never looked this nice on a good day.
It also should be said, Stone and Gosling do work well together, bouncing off each other’s energy and demonstrating a strong chemistry in the way they interact and say their lines.
You’ll probably love La La Land. Most people seem to and there’s a lot to like.
But I’m not sure it comes together the way it should. And I think that’s because somewhere in the second half, the story starts losing steam as Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle, who, of course writes and directs here, struggles to create a realistic conflict to break up the characters in order to keep the story going.
But the conflicts feel a bit too artificial. Sebastian joins a band that is hugely successful, but doesn’t play the sort of music he likes, which takes him away from Mia. He blames Mia for his decision, though I have no idea why (and Mia seems as puzzled as I was). In fact, I never understood why he made his decision. And then something happens that can’t be so easily repaired and the two go their separate ways.
It takes a deus ex machina to sort of bring them sort of back together. It’s not of the most believable variety. It requires one to buy the idea that a major casting agent would attend a one night only one person show.
Hey, I know it’s the city of dreams, but I still felt it stretched credulity a bit too much. (In the movies that inspired La La Land, what would happen is the hero would find a way to trick the casting agent into coming, even abducting them.)
But no matter, because it all has a sad ending.
And this is where the movie really falls short and is the main reason why the film never works. Chazelle never creates a strong enough or passionate enough relationship between the two for me to ever felt that a great romance was lost. It’s too bad the two didn’t end up together, but that’s all I felt: too bad.
The ending just simply didn’t rise to the emotional impact of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or New York, New York because the relationship didn’t match the ones in those movies either.
I think what is really missing are those numbers in musicals that really show the depths of the character’s feelings for one another. There’s no You Were Meant For Me or Singing in the Rain. There’s no If It Takes Forever I Will Wait For You. None of the dance numbers between Mia and Sebastian come close to anything by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
There are a couple of numbers that perhaps are supposed to do that, one a breezy tap number on a deserted street and another a flight of fancy at the Adler Planetarium. But the tap number is little more than breezy and the Planetarium number, as hard as it tries, doesn’t come close to the Dancing in the Dark number from The Band Wagon.
And though Stone and Gosling are pleasant enough performers, in the end all one can really say that though both are better than Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando, they aren’t quite, or aren’t given the chance to be, Astaire and Rogers.
With J.K. Simmons basically recreating his role from Whiplash in a cameo as the owner of a restaurant who keeps firing Gosling, also the only restaurant for some reason who will even hire him in the first place.