Review: La La Land (2016)

The Elvis Impersonator of musicals: it clearly loves the thing it’s trying to be, while missing its most important point.

La La Land is promising on paper. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are usually charming individually, and are great together in Crazy Stupid Love. Director Damien Chazelle‘s Whiplash is an engaging musical of a completely different kind – a tense, tight, rivetingly shot portrait of a jazz drummer gunning for greatness. Which is why it’s surprising that LLL is so much less than these parts.

It fails to emulate the musicals it looks up to because it doesn’t work the way they do. From Singing in the Rain to Frozen, the culturally compelling musical is driven by extroverted performances which explode into song when the emotion can no longer be contained by mere dialogue; the song-and-dance numbers in those feel like they grow naturally out of each scene or emotional beat. LLL just sort of inserts low-key musical moments (limited, perhaps, by the range of Gossling & Stone – we can only imagine what LLL might have looked like with actual musical theatre performers in those roles). And there are entire stretches of the movie devoid of music or even plot or character development, which is really the only thing a musical should stop being musical for (and better musicals manage to do both simultaneously).

Bookended by technically outstanding set pieces, the overlong film in between seems uncertain of the what, how or even why of the musical.

The most exuberant number is the opening scene – but that feels less like a triumph and more like a bunch of ideas dumped on the audience as if to say, “How good is singing & dancing?” – which isn’t bad in itself, but LLL blows its load early by having its technical highpoint kick off the relatively flabby cinematic experience which follows. At the other end of the overlong running time, the film’s emotional highpoint is its finale which, while incredibly impressive in its art direction and technical achievement, is also a cheaply manipulative “what might’ve been” sequence that doesn’t even exist in the reality the movie has forced us to plod through to get to that point.

A musical can often work like a well-written song: each line moves things along; no beat or note is wasted; a lean, tight expression of something hopefully transcendent. LLL takes two hours to say what, say, Beaches says in two scenes – and with less insight. (And while Beaches may not be a musical technically, it’s more of a musical functionally than LLL ever manages to be).