Pastiche is a tricky affair. Go too far in emulating the films being referenced and one risks bland slavishness; go too far in the other direction and one chances missing what makes those films great. Rare is the film that successfully synthesizes its influences into something truly daring and new, while still capturing the spirit of the classics that came before. In that respect, La La Land—writer-director Damien Chazelle’s ode to the musicals of the 1950s and 60s (particularly those of Jacques Demy)—has much to recommend itself, but ultimately comes up short, though it’s certainly not for lack of trying.
After its energetic opening number—a Los Angeles traffic jam that gives way to “Another Day of Sun,” the irritations of the freeway supplanted by liberating motion and bursts of song—La La Land introduces us to our would-be lovers: Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress and sometime playwright, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who dreams about opening his own club. She struggles to find bit parts; he's barely able to support himself; and their first encounter on the freeway is anything but romantic. But as the seasons go by and their respective careers flounder, their paths continue to intersect. (“Maybe it means something?” Sebastian asks sardonically. “I doubt it,” she replies.) Eventually, of course, they swoon for each other, and so do we—or at least, that’s the idea.
Certainly, Chazelle and his collaborators propel La La Land forward with impressive verve: eye-popping colors and gorgeous widescreen compositions, courtesy of D.P. Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, Joy); a score from Justin Hurwitz, music director of Chazelle’s two previous films (including his modest debut musical, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench); earnest lyrics from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul; and some ace editing from Tom Cross (who won an Oscar for Whiplash). Early on, when the narrative stakes are still at a minimum, the film manages to thrill with its impeccable rhythms, control of space, and hyper-kinetic movement. A party scene showcases Chazelle’s camera at its most aggressively mobile, swirling about with confidence, the shots framed by the golden hues of flowing champagne (even the vignetting glows!). For a while, it’s an old-fashioned nostalgia-trip, an unabashed throwback to the joyous rhythms of Singin’ in the Rain or The Young Girls of Rochefort (though not quite as accomplished in its actual numbers). And yet, it’s lucid enough to recognize that nostalgia alone is insufficient. Not for nothing does Mia and Sebastian’s first date directly reference the planetarium lecture in Rebel Without a Cause (“...the Earth will not be missed”), their first dance (literally) backed by the vast expanses of space in the Griffiths Observatory. With the looming inevitability of oblivion, art and romance may be all these lovers have; looking back is not an option.
Mia eventually decides to write, direct and star in her own play (a “one-woman show”), and though he’s reluctant to at first, Sebastian takes a gig with Keith (John Legend), a former classmate now heading a popular jazz band. “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” Keith asks him. “You’re holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” For a while, that seems to be Chazelle’s defining approach: to riff on the musicals of old while changing up the melodies and fusing their strengths into something resonant and new. (“It’s conflict and compromise and it’s very, very exciting,” says Sebastian.) But the film grows increasingly confused as its emotional stakes build, so its charm is rather scattered. The script doubles-down against corporate product, a Los Angeles that’s all superficiality and shallow pleasure, but then proceeds to throw Sebastian’s “compromise” with Keith’s band in with the same (via an ill-considered Vertigo reference). The film questions Sebastian’s intransigent, stubborn nostalgia, but then portrays any divergence from that as selling out. Why then stage the band’s performance with Mia slowly being pushed to the back of the room? Why then have the opening night of her play coincide with the band’s garish photoshoot?
La La Land’s conflicted nature would be far easier to forgive if the film itself—particularly its musical numbers—provided a purer rush of coruscating emotion. But it’s so loaded with cinephile references and so relentlessly self-reflexive that it reaches neither the fervent highs nor the devastating feeling that it’s going for. It’s far too self-conscious, too distanced to reach greatness, Sebastian’s pre-emptive advice regarding any detractors (“Fuck ‘em”) notwithstanding. And yet La La Land's finale, which fuses the emotions of Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg with the visual dynamism of Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon or An American in Paris, is truly something to behold. It's an all-out deconstructionist pastiche that doubles back and zips through an entire parallel narrative, finally achieving the pure thrill and emotional force that the previous hundred minutes had only gone halfway to reaching. (As with Whiplash, Chazelle certainly knows how to end a film.) Those fifteen or so minutes alone may be worth the price of admission. La La Land may not reach the greatness of the classic musicals that Chazelle clearly adores, but to borrow from J.K. Simmons’ jazz taskmaster in Whiplash: good job.