Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off
By Nick Pinkerton

La La Land
Dir. Damien Chazelle, U.S., Lionsgate

[This review contains spoilers.]

La La Land is a virtuoso performance by a very proficient young director, 31-year-old Damien Chazelle, who knows exactly what he wants to do and knows how to go about doing it. I suspect that he’ll be a name to watch for some time to come, and his third feature suggests that he has some definite ideas about popular moviemaking. Would I maybe loathe it a little less if it weren’t so unimpeachably competent?

It starts with a perfect, sunny day, contrasted for comic effect with an on-screen title reading “Winter,” overlooking a freeway in morning gridlock—the two things that everybody knows about Los Angeles, that it doesn’t have sharply defined seasons, and that the traffic is lousy. Then, all at once, commuters are bursting from their stationary vehicles, belting out a welcome to the day in chorus and pulling backflips and cartwheels, the entire spectacle seemingly caught in an unbroken shot sutured together by whip-pans, a technique employed throughout the film. And just as abruptly as it all began, they’re back in their cars, stuck in traffic, grousing, and an underemployed jazz pianist gives a salty salute to the aspiring actress he’s been stuck behind as he blows past her.

These are our leads, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), and their paths just seem to keep crossing after this inauspicious meet-cute, them liking what they see a little more each time they see one another, until one day she ditches her boyfriend in the middle of a dinner date and impetuously rushes off to meet “Seb” at a repertory screening of Rebel Without a Cause, the throw of the projector lands on her face in just such a way as she scans the audience for him and all of the sudden it’s a big romance. Their meetings tend to break into song-and-dance duets expressive of muted yearning or smitten bliss—a hesitant soft-shoe in front of a rear projection view dusk after a daytime party somewhere in the hills, or a breaking-and-entering date at the Griffith Observatory that ends with them taking flight in the planetarium, their silhouettes soaring through the constellations. When they first get together, he’s dreaming of opening a jazz club and she of being a movie star, though in actual life he’s busy getting bounced from a restaurant gig for going into a blue note reverie when he’s meant to be playing holiday standards, and the closest she’s gotten to fame is working as a barista at the coffee shop on a studio lot. It’s the catastrophe of success, finally, that tears them apart: he hits the road with a sell-out pop-jazz ensemble, and she finally gets her big audition and aces it, telling her interlocutors a story about a tippling maiden aunt who lived in Paris and introduced her to la vie de bohème, which is delivered in tune. “A bit of madness is key,” she sings, “To give us new colors to see.”

Like Chazelle’s Whiplash, La La Land concerns itself with the sacrifices and compromises necessary to living the creative life. Purist Seb wants to make a home for “real” jazz, but in order to pay the bills winds up playing keys for a band that is the film’s equivalent of Ghost World’s Blueshammer, the Messengers, fronted by an old classmate, Keith (John Legend). When Mia is first encountered living with three roommates, her home is a shrine to studio-era Hollywood, and she sleeps under the watchful visage of Ingrid Bergman, but we only see her reading sides for crap TV shows: police procedurals, medical dramas, and the like. Seb worries aloud that the traditional jazz he loves is “dying,” and while the situation seems somewhat less desperate with the movies—there’s a stagebound western shooting on the lot where Mia works, just as though Eisenhower was still in office—it’s implied that they’re not in the best of health, either; that print of Rebel Without a Cause gets stuck in the projector gate and melts, and the next time that Mia drives past the theater, it’s closed for business.

From the get-go, La La Land knowingly situates itself in relation to film history—the opening sequence reaches back to the traffic jam reverie that begins Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), a sequence which has been subsequently reworked in the likes of the Los Angeles–set Falling Down (1993) and the contemporary music video for R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” Also acting as a frame of reference are the musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood, particularly the gossamer Technicolor marvels of MGM, and the appropriations of those American musicals by the French director Jacques Demy, beginning with his 1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Chazelle makes no bones about his debt to Demy’s first musical—on the studio lot we see a street display containing the false front of a boutique advertising “Parapluies,” much like the one run by Catherine Deneuve’s mother in the Demy film, and if you grok this it will come as little surprise when La La Land’s postscript and grand finale lift more or less directly from Umbrellas. After dividing the year-and-some-change romance between Seb and Mia into seasonal chapters, the movie picks up five years after we’ve watched them part so that she can take her shot at a big break on an immersive, intensive film shoot in Paris. The risk has paid off—by the way that heads turn when she re-enters her old coffee shop you can tell that she’s become a legitimate star. She’s married with a kid to a man who isn’t Seb, and one night they leave the baby with a sitter for an evening out and wind up at a club where, of all the gin joints in all the world, who should be sitting at the piano but Seb.

The model, again, is Demy’s Umbrellas, which ends with Deneuve’s Geneviève and her first love, Nino Castelnuovo’s Guy, reunited on Christmas Eve at the gas station he operates after a six-year separation brought on by his being drafted into the Algerian War, both now living their separate lives. There’s no shame in Chazelle’s borrowing—Demy’s own debt to Marcel Pagnol is considerable—and he puts his own spin on the familiar tune: as Mia watches Seb play we see her imagine the life that they might have had together if he’d accompanied her overseas five years before, a parallel reality envisioned in the razzle-dazzle artifice of Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951), a film which certainly made an impression on Demy as well.

These connections are there for the taking, and since Chazelle is so eager to offer them up, it’s worth thinking a bit about what they mean, and how La La Land holds up to the comparison. Demy deeply loved the Hollywood musical, but he realized that what might’ve made perfect sense in the context of the traditions of Louis B. Mayer and Arthur Freed and Joseph Breen and Tin Pan Alley wasn’t appropriate to the world of his lived experience, and the setting of his own film—that of northwestern coastal France in the late 1950s and early 60s, when the winds of a vast cultural change were in the air. Demy had borrowed what he needed from Minnelli, but Umbrellas, with its out-of-wedlock pregnancies and dying parents and looming warfronts, wasn’t a movie anything like what Minnelli would have made in 1951—in fact, by the 1960s, Minnelli wasn’t making movies like that either; take a look at Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) if you don’t believe me.

Where Demy and Minnelli were adapters, Chazelle, like his leads, is a nostalgist, caught up in backward-looking yearning for real jazz, real movies and movie stars, and a swank, stylish old Los Angeles. There is one gag involving callous smart-phone-swiping during Mia’s audition, and the Messengers use preprogrammed beats, but otherwise there is little here that locates La La Land in its particular historical moment, or in a recognizable Los Angeles. This isn’t a mistake. Again, I believe that Chazelle knows exactly what he’s doing, and he does it with considerable verve and lubricity—too much, in fact. There’s nary a rough patch in the whole movie, and when Mia sings her audition song, a downbeat piano-accompanied ode to the mad artists that offers the salutation “Here’s to the hearts that ache/ Here’s to the mess we make,” you might be forgiven for asking: What mess?

Seb and Mia are nice middle-class kids, not temperamental headcase artists in the tradition of Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977). Neither is seen to drink to excess, they are models of fidelity once joined together, and aside from some early flirtatious goading, they get in exactly one real fight throughout the course of the movie. Even in their “starving artist” years they both are seen to have the benefit of family safety nets in place—Mia’s parents back in small-town Nevada, and Seb’s sister, Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt)—and things don’t get much more grim for them than the moment when Seb notices a bit of spreading water damage on the ceiling of his apartment and decides to sell his soul to fusion.

“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” Keith asks sanctimonious Seb at one point. “You’re holding onto the past but jazz is about the future.” It’s a decent question, actually, one that La La Land settles by gliding right past it. When we last see Seb he has his club, has moved into a swank new place with nice modular shelving for his vinyl collection, and is playing the classic jazz that he’s always loved to a packed house of enthusiastic young aficionados drinking 13-dollar cocktails; Mia, sitting in the audience, has the career, the designer kid, and a reasonably tall, blandsome husband. They both, in fact, have just about everything they’ve ever wanted, except one another. Where in Demy’s ending, the failure of Geneviève and Guy’s love is but one compromise of the many that are intrinsic to lower middle-class lives and pinched circumstances, Chazelle’s protagonists have to settle for being one item shy of the complete set.

This isn’t to say that Chazelle isn’t well within his rights to make a movie about the artist-as-young-middle-class striver—in fact this is a more honest depiction of where the contemporary “creative class” are culled from than, say, Lust for Life (1956), to go back to Minnelli yet again. And in fact the coda of his film is affecting, thanks in no small part to the considerable chemistry of his leads, though on reflection the bittersweet turns to sour. What doesn’t quite wash is the combination of this with the tropes of dreamers burning the candle at both ends; the whole affair feels decidedly low-stakes—judiciously so. What Chazelle and, finally, his protagonists seem to embody is the “businessman-artist” described by Manny Farber in his 1957 essay “Hard-Sell Art,” those “efficient, hard-working mediocrities who threaten to wipe out the whole idea of ‘felt,’ committed art.” (Among jazz musicians he cites Dave Brubeck, Jimmy Giuffre, and Stan Getz, judgments I can’t vouchsafe—I don’t know anything about jazz.)

Ever since the movie musical’s decline as a popular form, there have been periodic attempts to revive it. Some of these have been artistically successful, others have been Les Misérables (2012), but almost all have conceded to the fact that they don’t make them like they used to because you can’t make them like they used to, and that the musical needs to exploit new forms, new technologies, and new subject matter in order to reach a new public. In this La La Land is an exception—it doesn’t want to bridge the last sixty-odd years so much as pretend they never happened, to return to an imagined Eden of old-fashioned razzle-dazzle and audience innocence. This is perhaps the film’s best claim to contemporality: while it styles itself as a throwback, its revanchism is very much of the moment. And if I really believed that such neo-naivete was necessary to save the beset, beleaguered movies, I’d just as soon see them go peacefully.