The latest bit of movie-musical pastiche from Damien Chazelle could be alternatively titled All the Oscars!, eager as it is to please those who might vote it into the AMPAS pantheon. But gilded statuettes aren’t the only thing on this Los Angeles-set film’s mind. La La Land is also out to win over the cinema-savvy and, to a lesser degree, the jazz aficionados who likely complained about Whiplash’s bebop point of reference being white guy Buddy Rich. (Based on co-star Ryan Gosling’s painfully inadequate basso warbling, though, vocal coaches aren’t on the writer-director’s list to impress.)
Chazelle wears his influences proudly. As in his first feature, 2009’s charmingly slight musical romance Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Jacques Demy hovers over the proceedings like a patron saint. The French director loved melancholy as much as he loved music. In films like 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and 1967’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, he fused the fancifulness of old Hollywood song-and-dance productions with the soul-searing emotions brought on by broken hearts and dreams too big to bear fruit.
La La Land steals liberally from Demy’s catalogue, both in terms of their visual cues and the characters’ emotional arcs. The top-down vehicle owned by Gosling’s devoted jazz pianist, Sebastian, even recalls the car driven by the eponymous singer-dancer’s former lover in 1961’s Lola. But does all the referencing and homage—and not just to Demy, but also to Golden Age Tinseltown productions like An American in Paris, jazz greats like Miles Davis, and even (in the film’s funniest scene) the English new-wave band A Flock of Seagulls—add up to much of anything original?
Chazelle’s collaborators certainly try their best. Composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul contribute a pleasing score, with the kind of earnest verse (“Here’s to the ones who dream/Foolish as they may seem/Here’s to the hearts that ache/Here’s to the mess we make”) on which Demy films thrived. D.P. Linus Sandgren shoots the many musical numbers, and numerous other scenes besides, in gorgeous widescreen long takes that privilege space and bodies in ways managed by few modern movie musicals. And choreographer Mandy Moore has a field day with the set pieces Chazelle dreams up: a traffic jam that turns into an acrobatic free-for-all; a tap-and-swoon pas de deux above the Hollywood Hills at sunset; a gravity-defying waltz among the projected stars at the Griffith Observatory.
The young lovers at the center of it all are Gosling’s Sebastian and Emma Stone’s aspiring actress Mia, who meet cute, fall in love, break up, and come, finally, to a place of melancholic acceptance with how their lives have played out. They are, too, very much like Demy’s characters, whose extremely personal emotional dilemmas often feel like they touch the heavens. The problem is that, despite the music and lyrics’ insistence to the contrary, Sebastian and Mia are dreamers by proxy, their hopes and despairs remaining frustratingly earthbound. Stone’s big moment, for example, a confessional song about the aunt who inspired her, should be heartrending, but it mainly comes off as a shameless showcase along the lines of Anne Hathaway’s tear-streaked spittling and shouting in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables. (Stone, at least, can more endearingly carry a tune.)
Not once during La La Land do you feel like you’re watching red-blooded characters, so much as you are the good-natured, tirelessly committed actors playing them. Hollowness results, and a crucial piece of the movie-musical illusion goes missing. Melodies are being sung, but the impassioned souls from which they’re supposed to spring are absent.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.