Like someone madly stripping a Christmas tree of ornaments just when he ought to be stringing them up, I have dumped half a dozen brightly colored year-end movies into the staved-in box of this column. Retrieve what you like, during these darkest weeks of a very dark year. Despair at our national condition, or disgust at cinema’s marketers and puff-writers, might tempt you to think of these films as mere baubles; but pick through the heap anyway, for the sake of whatever reflected light they offer. The glow might remind you that however much we need resilience and the will to resist, we have an even greater need, always, to choose what to love.
Which is why, despite everything he’s fudged, I could kiss Damien Chazelle for the first pretty thing in this box, La La Land. Chazelle doesn’t feel it’s enough to cast Emma Stone as an aspiring actress who works at the coffee bar on the Warner Bros. lot, and Ryan Gosling as a piano player and aspiring nightclub owner who works where he can: two beautiful people who meet cute on a jammed freeway—an impatient honk, a raised middle finger—and then, after the requisite friction, fall for each other. No, Chazelle isn’t content until his characters elevate their squabbling and flirting into song and dance, performed along a scenic overlook of Los Angeles at twilight. He isn’t happy until Gosling, outraged at Stone’s ignorance of jazz, drags her to a bar for her immediate edification, and presumably the audience’s as well.
Chazelle’s wonderful idea in La La Land is to make a couple’s infatuation with each other overflow into his own love for movie musicals and mid-20th-century jazz. I love them, too. But as La La Land suggests, with its story of dreams achieved and bliss abandoned, love can’t last unless it’s stronger than ambition. My heart goes out to Chazelle because of his desires; it sinks at how he’s compromised them.
If you’re going to have Ryan Gosling rhapsodize about the excitement of jazz, you ought to play the audience the real stuff. I find evidence in La La Land that Chazelle has heard some of it. (There was also evidence in his previous film, Whiplash, despite its premise that jazz education is a matter of learning to play old Maynard Ferguson charts as fast as possible.) But even though Chazelle presumably knows better, he hedges commercially in La La Land, filling the sound track with jazz-by-the-yard from composer Justin Hurwitz. When I got home, I found that I couldn’t blast away the blandness with anything too restrained, like Art Farmer and Benny Golson. I had to resort to Mingus.
As for Chazelle’s choice of stars: I adore Stone and Gosling separately and also when they’re cast together, even in crap like Gangster Squad. But the great RKO and MGM movies triumphed not because Fred Astaire was adorable, but because he was musical in himself. Stone and Gosling are not. They’re physically poised. They’re pleasant in musical performance. But they get a little boring with their reedy voices and rudimentary shuffle-heel-step. La La Land has charming moments—many of them—and makes especially charming use of Los Angeles as a location. But even though I kept pulling for it to get off the ground, I felt it rose into the sky only once—and that was with the aid of CGI.