There’s a moment near the midpoint of La La Land where John Legend, as the leader of a neo-jazz combo who recruits the piano playing Ryan Gosling, opines that jazz cannot evolve so long as purists like Gosling’s Sebastian are unwilling to allow it. It’s difficult not to see this statement, intended as a turning point for the film’s plot, to serve as a sort of meta-thesis on La La Land, and the musical genre as a whole.
Up to this point in the film, La La Land is structured as a traditional, golden age musical. Full of big numbers, stunning visuals, and captivating romance, the first half of the film sweeps you into its loving arms and dumps you straight into a world of such awe and wonder that you’ll wish that life itself was a musical. However, with Legend’s declaration regarding the necessity of evolution, the film takes a turn for the worse. It’s still a musical, but it’s a musical of a different sort, one not nearly as charming or entertaining as the one that preceded this moment.
This is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s third feature film, following 2014’s powerful Whiplash and 2009’s forgotten Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and the third of which is centered around the world of jazz. It’s a subject on which Chazelle is clearly passionate, as his films tend to veer into impassioned screeds about the nature of what jazz is and means. That’s all well and good, but La La Land is a film that’s at its best when it’s a film about a jazz musician rather than a film about jazz.
It feels odd to say as, traditionally, I have never been a fan of musicals (despite the best attempts of loved ones and theatre friends to sway me) but La La Land drew me in with such force that I had little time to raise my defenses. The opening number, “Another Day in the Sun” is an immediate tone setter (or so it seems) that recalls the bombastic glory of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Set amidst the backdrop of an LA traffic jam, it’s an unforgettable opening salvo that easily softens hardened hearts such as my own.
It’s a lovely way to start a film, Chazelle’s love letter to Los Angeles. Full of magic and artistry, it’s an awe-inspiring cinematic moment that will rightly go down in history. This continues as we meet our characters, Emma Stone’s Mia—a struggling actress who makes ends meet by working as a barista on a studio lot—and Gosling’s Sebastian—a piano playing jazz musician who struggles to find a purity in a world that increasingly respects only flash.
The first half of La La Land veers back and forth between their perspectives as fate slowly winds them together (leading towards a lovely Astair/Rogers inspired number that oozes with charm and romance). As their relationship grows, so too does the film’s magic but the magic here is parabolic, peaking near the aforementioned scene with Legend and dropping considerably after this moment.
From here La La Land abandons any attempt to recall the Golden Age, becoming an outlet for Chazelle’s musings on “what jazz is all about, man” as the film moves on. It’s difficult for me to rectify how both halves of the film play out, and how each balances the other. In a way, it almost feels as though two films—or, more precisely, two premises for the same film—were meshed together while the best was wished for.
Though the musical theme continues into the second half of La La Land, it’s more a series of scenes and montages set to an admittedly rousing jazz score from Justin Hurwitz than it is a musical in the traditional sense. It was difficult, then, not to feel the bitter pangs of the ol’ bait and switch as the remainder of the film unfolded. So jarring was the switch, that I spent much of the latter half of the movie wondering where the film I’d been watching had gone to.
Which isn’t to say the last half is bad, per se. The story is completed to a satisfying end with all themes and plots wrapped up nicely. But I missed that awe, that feeling of finally understanding what so many friends and so many ex-girlfriends had been trying to show me for all these years. That was a disappointment.
Even accounting for the disappointment, however, La La Land is still a fine a movie, even if it only plateaus instead of reaching the peaks it hinted towards. Stone and Gosling have a remarkable, classic chemistry that that warms and breaks your heart in alternating sweeps. Any nominations they receive are more than well deserved, and their depiction of the ups and downs of romance are as real as anything that has ever been committed to film. So, too, with Chazelle’s direction. La La Land is a sweeping, fantasy laced narrative full of moments both big and small, and Chazelle has really started to come into his own as a director.
I did like La La Land. However, it’s difficult for me to get over how very close I got to loving La La Land. The abrupt change in format was too jarring to overcome and felt like an inability to fulfill the promises made in act one. There’s a philosophical critical question this raises about the promises made by a film and whether or not they owe it to the audience to keep them. That’s a worthy discussion to have, and frankly I’m not sure I know where I land on that. In this case though, it was a disappointment. Certainly not the greatest cinematic disappointment I’ve ever experienced, but a let down nonetheless.
La La Land is now playing in limited release. It opens everwhere on Christmas Day.