La La Land deserves awards, perhaps not all the awards, but it is worthy of praise. As a classic movie fan, it's amazing to be able to see a nicely-executed new musical with a passion for the productions of the past, filmed on 35mm, splashed across the screen in a theater. With a score reminiscent of the wistful and dreamy music Michel Legrand wrote for Jacques Demy films like The Young Girls of Roquefort (1967) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and the colorful production design of MGM and Fox musical classics, it does scratch that nostalgic itch to a great degree.
It is a love story, starring the charismatic if not sizzling duo of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. She is Mia, an aspiring actress slogging through disappointing auditions for small parts in cop shows and cheesy dramas. He is Sebastian, a jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own club, though he currently pays the bills playing Christmas carols in a restaurant. They meet ugly in a brief moment of road rage, but after several more encounters, they give in to their respective charms and become deeply smitten with each other. They love deeply, but struggle to keep their relationship strong as they pursue their dreams.
Mia and Sebastian live in a pretty LA, free of garbage and sidewalk encampments. Gosling dances down a sparkling clean pier, remarkably free of bird droppings. It's all bathed in soothing shades of blue, green and pink. No one is supposed to have money, but everyone is impeccably dressed. It is the setting of one of those strange, but peaceful dreams you might have before waking.
I didn't go into La La Land expecting Gosling and Stone to perform at the level of the artists in classic Hollywood musicals, but it was hard not to feel let down nevertheless. While I realize the golden age of musicals has passed, are there really no triple threats out there anymore? It is possible to act your way through a song though, even with vocal limitations, and that is what these two have done to satisfying effect.
Dancing is trickier, and it is here where Gosling and Stone are weakest. Watching them, I was reminded of a fantasy sequence in Pal Joey (1957) where Kim Novak and Rita Hayworth are dancing side-by-side. The identical choreography makes the difference in their skill levels clear. Novak executes all the moves and stays on the beat, but there's no artistry. On the other hand, trained dancer Hayworth writhes with sensual fluidity, feeling the dance as much as she is following choreography. This is where our leads fall short: you can hear them counting in their heads, doing their best to simply pull it off. There's no extension of the arms, no emotion within the movement; they don't have the posture or bearing of dancers. There's just no faking the work that goes into that kind of technique.
La La Land is tidy and precise to an almost excessive extent. There's never a true sense of peril; no feeling that if these characters don't find their way, they are finished. You always see they have a wide safety net, and at the very least they will end up okay. Living their dreams isn't a matter of life or death for them. Their quarrels even seem to glide along familiar, near reassuring rails. Even the glossiest of classic musicals had that passion of do or die.
As a fan of classic Hollywood it is impossible to ignore these shortcomings. Despite them, in many ways I felt La La Land spoke my language. There's the posters of Ingrid Bergman looming over Mia in her apartment, the first date at a repertory theater to see Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and the progression of that meeting to the observatory that was featured in the film. Getting lost in it is pleasurable, particularly for those moments that speak to lovers of the classics.
Ultimately, I succumbed to the beauty La La Land had to offer. The music is lovely; the production design is colorful and sensuously appealing and Gosling and Stone give their characters more depth and emotion than is on the page. To enjoy it, you essentially have to give yourself up to it and accept it on its own terms. Then the romance blooms, and the world it creates becomes a place to live the dream of the perfect artistic life. I found it to be a lovely escape, though I admit that when I went home and bought the soundtrack, I also purchased a few tunes from Michel Legrand's score for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.