Review: La La Land’s technical brilliance can’t quite mask its hollow, nostalgic core

After wowing critics in the US last year, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land finally arrived in UK theatres this month and received an equally rapturous reception. As if that weren’t enough, this love letter to classic musicals went on to earn a whopping 14 Oscar nominations earlier this week, all while remaining on track to rank as one of the past year’s most profitable releases. The message seems clear enough: everyone loves La La Land… well, everyone except me.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the movie – quite a bit actually. From the committed performances by leads Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling to the brilliantly conceived and executed musical numbers, there’s a lot to love about this flick. Yet La La Land is ultimately less than the sum of its parts – a technically brilliant effort that’s nevertheless hamstrung by the hollow nostalgia that pervades its every frame.

Set in Los Angeles, La La Land introduces us to Mia (Stone), a would-be actress perpetually overlooked, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a talented but difficult to work with jazz pianist. After several false starts, Mia and Seb eventually bond over their shared creative passion and frustrations, and before you can say “romantic song and dance routine”, they’ve fallen in love.

Together, the young couple try to land their respective big breaks, but success continues to prove elusive. Mia’s one-woman play fails to find an audience, while Seb grows increasingly frustrated playing in a popular jazz fusion band at odds with his purist sensibilities.

As the pressure involved with following their dreams begins to take its toll, Mia and Seb’s relationship starts to unravel, and they’re forced to confront the reality that doing what they love and staying together might not be possible.

Like I said up front, there’s a lot to love about La La Land.

For starters, Chazelle’s direction is fantastic. Not only does he draw strong turns from Stone and Gosling, along with cinematographer Linus Sandgren, but he also delivers the prettiest film you’ll see all year, one that embraces a refreshingly bold colour palette that somehow never seems too much. These visuals are helped immeasurably by the outstanding choreography by Mandy Moore, which perfectly captures the vintage musical energy that La La Land is shooting for (with a romantic waltz among the stars proving particularly memorable).

A large part of this is down to the involvement of Stone and Gosling, who gamely perform their own vocals and dancing. Admittedly, you won’t mistake either actor for a professional singer/dancer, but they’ve clearly worked tremendously hard and serve up credible vocal and physical performances (although supporting player John Legend’s handful of scenes are an infrequent reminder that there are “singers” and there are “Singers”).

But, of course, the real star of La La Land is the music itself. Not only are the melodies by composer Justin Hurwitz insanely catchy (you’ll be humming them days later), the lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul reflect the spirit of each scene and the emotions of the characters with an effortless kind of elegance.

With so much to love about La La Land, it’s such a shame that it ultimately falls prey to the biggest affliction in the pop culture space right now: nostalgia.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the way the film laments the way magical things fade away – whether that means the decline of things as concrete as “true” jazz and old-school Hollywood filmmaking, or as nebulous as our hopes for the future. There’s a poignancy to this that’s hard to dislike. No, I’m talking about how much of La La Land‘s appeal is rooted in recreating movies from half a century ago, and how if you strip these trappings away, you’re not left with much that’s new or emotionally real.

Yes, the movie is an ostensibly contemporary update on the template used by the musicals of a bygone era, but Chazelle doesn’t really deliver anything new or insightful. He’s too enraptured with the past and sneaking in yet another nod to Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris or one of a dozen other Hollywood classics to truly deliver on the promise of moving the musical genre forward.

Like Sebastian, Chazelle is so hung up on the way things were that he has no time to contemplate what they could be, and this devotion to glitzy nostalgia makes La La Land an oddly empty exercise overall.

Still, on a purely technical level, La La Land is an astonishing piece of cinema. If you go in looking for heartfelt performances, top-notch staging, a stellar soundtrack, and clever homages to the Golden Age of Hollywood, you’re likely to walk out very happy indeed. If, however, you’re expecting to see the next stage in the evolution of the big screen musical, chances are you’ll leave feeling at least a little cheated.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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