Here’s what you need to know about creating a feature-length homage to Gene Kelly, Miles Davis, and other well-remembered musical talents set in the present day: don’t do it. Otherwise all you’ll end up with is the viewer thinking, “Gee, I should watch, ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ again, sometime.”
Now, hold on, this is not a bad homage by any means. It’s colorful, has a sharp sense of humor in parts, and there are some impressive technical feats. Impressive, that is, until you realize that the movie wears a few too many hats and calls attention to its own imitations way too much. It wants to be a story about deferred dreams between two lovers, while also being an impressionistic picture of Los Angeles (the tidy picturesque parts, that is, so you won’t be seeing South Central, Skid Row or even MacArthur Park) while also taking jabs at the music industry and embracing Hollywood’s past. The result is a wafer-thin movie that evaporates the moment you finish watching it, save for a beautiful ending which subverts the movie’s dreamy love affair with the past while going all out in bittersweet glory (which I won’t spoil out of politeness, because it makes the movie worth glancing at, kinda).
So: we open in present day (2016) Los Angeles, California, where a traffic jam on the infamous 405 highway turns into a gonzo musical number. Afterwards, we are introduced to Ryan Gosling as a bitter, broke Jazz musician who is so in love with music from the late greats of 1900’s Jazz that he dreams of opening his own Jazz club playing that kind of music and that kind of music alone. Then we see Emma Stone as an aspiring actor who works the tables at a coffee shop located in the Warner Bros. studio lot while auditioning for various roles. The two don’t begin on friendly terms as they meet each other throughout the city, but eventually they warm up on each other and begin a relationship where they each work to prop each other up in the pursuit of their respective dreams…which turns mutually ugly when it turns out that said relationship is imbalanced at best, where one succeeds but feels like a sellout while the other tries their best while down in the dumps.
In the midst of this are a series of details that build up, from the way Stone’s character reluctantly engages with the Hollywood system (which Gosling’s character derides, to the point of taking her to a screening of, “Rebel Without a Cause” in a run-down theater because of course he does), to Gosling’s eventual acclaim and recruitment by John Legend as a pop-star whose style of music Gosling despises despite Legend lecturing the man on the value of musical innovation and of letting go of the past. Yep. To be fair, the movie doesn’t outright make Legend’s character out to be a bad guy, the character is given moments of depth, what he says makes sense even in the movie’s dreamy context considering that he’s an actual working musician, and, well, everyone has bills to pay, right? He is even shown in a happy relationship towards the end and is consistently shown to be, if not outright cuddly, at least like an actual human being. But given the movie’s proximity to, and emphasis on, Ryan Gosling during the aforementioned lecture and the moments after it, one can’t help but feel like the movie is about a white guy doing a passive-aggressive, “Well, actually” about Jazz music, integrity and art not just to the girl he supposedly loves, but even to a member of the fucking demographic that excelled at those things for centuries. Not helped by the fact that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone can only kinda (not really) sing while John Legend is…well, come on, you’ve listened to a John Legend song before, have you?
Even with the aforementioned skill/talent limitations of the two leads when it comes to music, the movie does produce some strong moments. The, “A Lovely Night” song/dance sequence featuring the two leads sets a new gold standard in the realm of modern musical moviemaking, at least in terms of production and cinematography. Seemingly done in one take, with a beautiful sky and mountains behind them, the two argue, shove each other off, warm up to each other and finally jive in a way that can only happen in musicals. It is this extended moment, along with the opening scene at the 405 and the ending, where the movie succeeds in merging its impressionistic, tidy picture of Los Angeles and Jazz with the emotional pulse of its characters and the enthusiasm of moviemakers plumbing cinema’s past and re-contextualizing it in inventive ways. The parts between all that, however, are where the movie’s chasm between being a homage and standing on its own terms becomes distracting and apparent. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are fine actors, but even they can’t make one overlook how these two are perpetually close to bankruptcy and eviction until near the very end, and yet are able to live in parts of present day Los Angeles with easy access to bustling places of economic opportunity in the first place. Sure, it is implied that Emma Stone has a supportive family that helped her get to where she is, but Ryan Gosling’s character is an egotistical jerk whose sister mocks him and who at one point outright disobeys his boss (played by J.K. Simmons) in a job where the only pay we see him get are the tips he gets for playing Christmas songs on the piano (he never gets tipped, by the way). I know the year 2016 gave a certain political dipshit way more benefits of the doubt than they deserve, but not even the powers of White Privilege would be able to keep a dickhead like Gosling’s character at the outskirts of anything even remotely resembling Los Angeles, California…and yet the movie barrels on with this. Two young characters, reaching for the impossible until the very end, in circumstances textured yet arch, remixing the past in ways that borders on offensive the more one thinks on it but at least knows how to keep the beat steady while doing so.
“La La Land” is escapism that, at the very end, isn’t afraid to throw some cold water onto your face…or, rather, a few sprinkles in-between well-choreographed but mostly unmemorable musical scenes that scream to the viewer stuff like, “Hey, remember this planetarium from, “Rebel Without A Cause”? Here’s a musical version of that”. Or, “Hey, remember how great Jazz musicians were, back when you could consume their stuff without even bothering to think about the fact that most of them weren’t even allowed to get their royalties or sit in the same fucking rows as regular, untalented white folk? Come on, gang, let’s Make Music(als) Great Again”. And it says this with all of the selective memorializing, distortion and half-measures that such forceful nostalgia implies. The ending, at the very least, finalizes the movie’s slow unraveling from a nostalgic fever dream to a beautiful slap in the face, which manages the feat of re-contextualizing all of the nearly insufferable feats of the movie and giving it all some depth that almost makes Gosling’s character’s posturing about integrity in Jazz music contra actual fucking musician John Legend almost forgivable. If only the rest of the movie had that kind of courage and weight.
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