The first three quarters of “La La Land” is a light romantic musical movie that’s slightly off the mark.
This modern take on the Hollywood musicals of the mid-20th Century never embraces the foibles and fantasies that made those productions near perfect escapist material. Those films took the boy-meets-girl story and set it in a whimsical setting where anything could trigger a musical number.
There’s too much 21st Century influence in the story of Mia (Emma Stone), a small town girl who moves to Hollywood to become an actor, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a talented jazz musician who laments the slow death of the musical genre. He wants to open a club to keep the beat going.
The closest director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) comes to capturing the spirit of the musical movie genre is in his use of color. There are splashes of bold color in every scene and has Stone dress in outfits of primary colors with no, or a limited amount, of patterns.
But the biggest issue is that “La La Land” starts slowly with both the romance and the musical numbers.
Chazelle’s caution in the early part of the movie makes the production move like a tap dancer in lead shoes. It doesn’t help that the early musical numbers by Gosling and Stone feature vocals so weak that it makes the viewer yearn for singing actors like Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick.
The early going is not a complete wash since Stone has an uncanny knack of making even the smallest scenes work. In one of her character’s early audition sequences, Stone makes the reading powerful despite a lack of interest by the casting directors. It’s a complicated emotional moment, as she shows both the feelings the character while revealing her own reactions to the indifference.
Gosling is also charming. His commitment to learning the piano parts for the movie give the production an authentic feel that often gets thwarted when it’s necessary to fake an actor’s musical skills.
Stone and Gosling are cute and do a decent job of dancing. In fact, Stone looks far more comfortable with the dance numbers than she does with the singing.
They are good enough to hold the movie together until this last act. As soon as Stone sings the showstopper “Audition (The Fools Who Dream,” that’s when the movie becomes a brilliant mix of musical performance and visual storytelling. Stone delivers the tune – that summarizes the themes of the film brilliantly – with a power and passion that is nowhere to be found in the earlier numbers.
The song and Stone’s performance – both of Oscar winning quality – are the catalyst that changes “La La Land” from being a light attempt to salute old Hollywood into a modern take on various forms of passion.
Chazelle finally picks up the tempo and keeps the beats defined, which gives the movie direction and purpose. At the same time, the director embraces many of the tropes of ‘50s movie musicals that elevate the film to a grand place.
After watching the early part of the movie unfold in such a predictable manner, Chazelle throws movie rules away for his finale. This makes it fresh and an engaging way to send an audience home, whether they are on board with the final plot points or not.
The last quarter of “La La Land” is so beautifully shot and performed, it makes up for the flat opening. It becomes a film that embraces a world where dreamers may seem foolish but eventually are very interesting.