La La Land

Once upon a time, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola made a musical. Coppola, who became famous worldwide for making “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now,” wrote, directed and financed “One From the Heart,” a lavish musical intended as an ode to classical Hollywood musicals. It had a slight story, splashy musical numbers and dazzling sets. The movie was a gigantic flop that cost Coppolas his studio, made him bankrupt and forced him to become a director for hire. It took him a decade to recover. Now, Damien Chazelle, the writer/director of “Whiplash,” has made his own “One From the Heart.” This time, the experiment of making a modern musical with state of the art effects works, mostly.

Ryan Gosling stars as a jazz musician named Sebastian who first encounters Mia (played by Emma Stone) on the L.A. freeway. Mia works at a studio cafe and undergoes daily rejection at auditions, while Sebastian must support himself at gigs that demean his talent. Mia and Sebastian quickly become an item but find that

Gosling is a lackluster singer but he almost gets away with it. Stone is far better but still not as polished as you’d hope. Yet, the fire in their performances is enough to overcome their untrained vocals. Far better is their dancing, which is stunning enough to evoke the Gene Kelly musicals Chazelle that obviously inspired Chazelle.

I don’t mean to bring up “One From the Heart” again (this is a much better movie) but it has the same basic problem as “La La Land.” Both Coppola and Chazelle have created big, bright love letters to old school Hollywood films and moviemaking. When the music plays and the song and dance numbers unfold, there’s real movie magic to spare. Yet, in the case of both movies, the story is so thin, it’s almost a movie about nothing. Thinking back on “La La Land,” I struggle to recall any real conflict. The drama that comes from our lover’s struggles to balance their creative passions with their love lives is obvious and contrived. Side characters played by Rosemarie DeWitt and John Legend appear promising but go nowhere. “Whiplash” Oscar winner J.K. Simmons pops up in a role so small, it should have been given to an unknown. When a main character runs off to their childhood home, you’d think it would provide a key moment of decision and insight but this bit of melodrama, like every other subplot here, is quickly tossed aside.

Chazelle likely doesn’t care about the story and wants to instill his love for cinema, starving artists and the art of jazz music. He clearly sees himself in Gosling’s character, particularly when Stone wonders aloud if her old fashioned play will find an audience and Gosling replies, “F— ’em!” Obviously, this is Chazelle’s feeling towards anyone who doesn’t take to his movie.

There is real virtuoso filmmaking here, from the big-wow of an opening sequence to even the small but elegant bit of Gosling singing the haunting “City of Stars” and stealing a dance from a middle aged woman. The first hour of this movie is blissful and light as a feather. Once the plot kicks in and the songs take a back seat, the movie becomes an ordeal. Thankfully, the final scene provides a perfect capper and, of all things, is a show-stopping ode to the “Broadway Melody” sequence from “Singin in the Rain.”

Although the film is an ode to dreamers, poets and hard working artists, its an awfully L.A.-centric film. We see our protagonists working for narcissistic monsters and struggling not compromise their talents. This is admirable, though the film also glamorizes the beauty of the Hollywood scene. Chazelle’s film is about the beautiful lie that is moviemaking. Yet, everything here is artifice. Chazelle may have wanted to make this one from the heart but he kind of made his own “One From The Heart.”

Three Stars

originally published in MAUIWatch