With the first musical number in “La La Land” – a boisterous song and dance on a traffic-jammed freeway – I thought that I was in love. Unfortunately, as is the case with romance in the movie, holding onto that love was more difficult than I at first thought.
It’s not that I didn’t admire the film. I did, very often, and the performances by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are winning. In a movie with a publicly admitted debt to “Singin’ in the Rain” (and a significant nod to “New York, New York”), they are indeed Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds (Stone so has her smart-girl-next-door quality), with Gosling channeling some of “NY NY’s” Robert DeNiro, too. The musical numbers work endearingly. The cinematography, sets and costumes are deliberately old-school fantasy in style; two people who are struggling nonetheless have plenty of snazzy duds, and Stone is highlighted by having her dressed more colorfully than the people around her.
The plot is vintage, too. Mia (Stone) is a barista who keeps trying to have an acting career. Sebastian (Gosling) is a jazz musician whose purist approach to music keeps him from getting jobs with more commercially-minded performers. (Early on, he is fired from a restaurant job because he simply can’t stick to tinkling renditions of Christmas songs.) After crossing paths a couple of times in surly ways, they finally connect, and urge each other to pursue their dreams – although outside their own, tuneful world they have stalled careers.
Then careers change everything. Sebastian joins a band run by an old friend, Keith (John Legend), playing big, catchy, but not too inventive pop tunes. He likes the applause and the money, but Mia worries that he has given up on success on his own terms. Conflict follows, and then a change in her career prospects, and their love faces one more test.
Overall I admired the stylishness of “La La Land.” As we have seen before, Gosling and Stone make a fine screen couple. The ending worked for me, too, reminding us once more of the artificiality in glossy fantasies. The soundtrack is terrific, too.
Do I get why a theater at 12:30 in the afternoon on Thursday was very crowded with people across generations? Sure. People want a feel-good movie (especially if, like us, they had seen “Manchester By the Sea” the previous day), and something to hum along with, and characters who don’t really have to worry much about paychecks or politics or having health care.
Only I did not stay in love with the movie. Too often the homages seemed too calculated to generate real feelings, the lush settings overdone to the point that the eyes wandered away from the characters to admire the bright lights and old movie posters. It’s sort of “New York, New York” in that respect, too, so intent on creating something wonderful out of old cloth, yet unable to perfectly match the vintage style.