Once an indelible part of the cinematic landscape, the musical has kind of fallen by the wayside over the past few decades. Only a handful of Broadway hits seem to be destined to grace the silver screen, and typically long after their popularity has peaked. Rarer are the original musicals crafted solely for the cinema. For his second feature as director, Damien Chazelle is set to revive the musical with La La Land, an homage to the city of Los Angeles told in dazzling visuals and song. La La Land is a very good movie but simply just an okay musical, with a dazzling kaleidoscope of color and movement yet lacking in songs that hook you. As much as you’ll be stunned at the choreography and style on display, you won’t be humming any of these songs on the way out the theater.
La La Land tells the story of two people struggling to make their way in Los Angeles. Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress that is having trouble securing a role. She works as a barista on the Warner Bros. studio lot, pouring coffee for those who have tapped into the success that eludes her. Some evening Mia attends glamourous parties with her multiple roommates in the hopes that somebody might notice them. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a musician that really, really loves jazz. He’s a purist when it comes to his passion for jazz and dreams of opening a jazz club all his own. After a few brief encounters, Mia and Sebastian start dating and fall for each other in the City of Angels. Soon Sebastian finds some success playing piano with Keith (John Legend), an old friend who doesn’t subscribe to Sebastian’s purist views on jazz, and his hectic schedule starts to wear on his relationship with Mia. It’s not long before both Mia and Sebastian must realize that success comes with compromises and those very same compromises could undo their relationship.
The look of La La Land is unmistakably vibrant on every level, from production and costume design to the cinematography by Linus Sandgren. The colors on the screen just pop with a stunning clarity that is without peers in modern filmmaking. Sandgren’s camera is often like another dancer in the fray, swooping in and out of the intricate choreography with style and grace. Chazelle’s movie fully embraces the artifice of dream-like musicals and this comes across in a majestic sequence that feature the Griffith Observatory, the characters floating together as they fall in love. From a purely visceral level, few films of 2016 are as intoxicating as the lush beauty of La La Land.
If there’s one thing that prevents La La Land from being a truly great musical it’s the songs by Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz. There is a beauty to the melancholy song “City of Stars” but it isn’t a catchy number that drives a fantastically staged dance sequence as much as it captures the sad heart of the story. And “City of Stars” is the one real standout number that is even the slightest bit memorable. The rest of the songs are upbeat and bombastic but lack that hook to make it stick with you past the conclusion of the number. Leaving the theater there’s little to take away with you, nothing to whistle or tap your toes to.
La La Land is also a sweeping love letter to Los Angeles, warts and all. The opening dance number takes place on a gridlocked freeway and the cavalcade of dancer twist and tap alongside and on top of their stationary vehicles. Damien Chazelle doesn’t just stick to the obvious. His movie pays homage to the winding roads of the hills, the history of the studios and the old movie houses, and all the assorted nooks and crannies of the greater Los Angeles area. More so, La La Land also is about the compromises that people must take to find success in the highly competitive region – be it playing a commercial version of the music you love or letting a relationship wilt away in order to realize your dreams. There’s a beauty and a tragedy anywhere you look in Los Angeles, and Damien Chazelle encapsulates with his sprawling musical.
As a piece of visual storytelling, La La Land is simply dazzling, a gorgeous mixture of color and motion that jumps off the screen. But as a musical, La La Land is simply okay. The film is a very good movie that is always flirting with greatness yet its songs fail impress on the same level as the intricate imagery on display. Despite the shortcomings of its song, La La Land is a dazzling delight that blends nostalgia with a modernist take on the musical genre, a melancholy love story of romance under the stars in the city of stars.