Seemingly every awards season has its crowned juggernaut; the unstoppable hit that’s lauded by critics and dominates every ceremony leading up to the climax of the Oscars. It doesn’t always work like that, of course: Last year, Spotlight surprised predicators everywhere by taking the Best Picture prize over the nigh-inevitable winner The Revenant (while most audiences would have preferred Mad Max: Fury Road, its chances of taking the top spot were always slim). Yet whatever the case, the narrative remains the same year after year – there will always be a frontrunner, even if it doesn’t end up victorious by the end.
This year, following a 2016 that reached near mythic proportions of awfulness, there’s been a real hunger for old fashioned escapism at the movies, and nothing exemplifies that more than the current Oscar darling in waiting, La La Land. The romantic musical seeks to lift hearts and spirits with the story of two artistic dreamers (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling) with big ambitions in the city of Los Angeles. Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his wildly successful film Whiplash contains much of that film’s kinetic energy and wholehearted, if stubborn, passions. Here, jazz once again plays a huge part of the story, with Gosling’s Sebastian being the embodiment of every jazz-bro you’ve heard stories about, but the most obvious influences are old school musicals: The nostalgic Hollywood joys of Astaire and Rogers; the rise and fall cost of fame narrative of A Star is Born; the technicolour melancholy of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This mish-mash of influences leads to some stunning images – the opening number on the LA highway in particular is an intricately choreographed display of joy and spontaneity that’s impressively shot in one take – but it also highlights one of the main problems with the film – so many influences on its sleeve all fighting for centre stage when none of them really go together.
The central story is of Mia and Sebastian’s relationship, at first combative then tentative, swelling into fantastical passion before the realities of life crash overhead. Their dancing is simple, their singing clearly untrained, yet therein lies the charm. This pair, while a hell of a lot better looking than most of us, are only a step away from being most of us. Stone and Gosling have worked together several times before, but their chemistry has never been more palpable, which is ironic given that the film strains to give Mia and Seb’s relationship something resembling pathos. Seb is frequently arrogant and rude, and even when he is schooled on his precious fetishizing of jazz by John Legend (underused as the leader of an all-black band Seb is invited to join, which he does but views with disdain), the film still rewards his refusal to remove the rose-tinted glasses. Gosling is twitchy and just charming enough here not to be entirely off-putting – and boy can he play piano – but the performance cries out for some self-awareness of Seb’s mansplaining nonsense.
Stone, on the other hand, is so vivacious and charismatic, so utterly believable in her aims and heartbreaking when faced with yet another rejection, that she fools you into thinking Mia is better written than she is. Her arc follows a well-worn rising star narrative to the point of pastiche yet the script gives the audience nothing to latch onto (any other characters we encounter are swiftly dismissed with little worry). We root for her because Stone is too good for us to ignore, but even her magnetic abilities can only mask so much, particularly since Chazelle seems more enamoured with the technical craft of making a flashy musical than imbuing it with something worth investing in.
And that’s a real shame because those technical aspects are stunning. The spectacle is undeniable, and a real thrill for those of us who grew up on Singin’ in the Rain and Gene Kelly tap dancing his heart out. Primary colours saturate the screen as a cocktail party turns into a snowy pool party of revelry; Mia and Seb dance across the indigo sky of the planetarium as the stars pass by; Mia and her friends giddily strut down the street in traffic light dresses, with Mia in cobalt blue that she swishes like Rita Moreno in West Side Story. The film is alive in these segments in ways it cannot sustain once the music stops.
In order to explain why the film fails in its central conceit, I have to talk about the ending, so spoilers ahoy.
La La Land is, ostensibly, a story of dreams, and the disappointment of those dreams never coming true. Sometimes we can be talented and work hard and be in the right place at the right time, and it still won’t happen for us because that’s just how life works. The film is at its strongest when it acknowledges those difficulties and how much they hurt. Mia is encouraged by Seb to tell her own story and screw those who would criticize her, but that can’t shield her from the pain of failure. If the film had ended with the pair never achieving their dreams, and splitting as a couple, it would have been a far more satisfying conclusion. If the film ended five minutes earlier than it did, it would have been unexpectedly refreshing and at least make sense on a thematic level. It could have been a melancholic acceptance of how life sometimes gets in the way of things but that doesn’t make the experiences worthless; instead, it’s a self-indulgent mess that throws every glittery distraction at the screen to try and justify unearned wish-fulfilment.
The final five minutes of the film see Mia five years from her last time with Seb. She is a wildly successful actress with a husband and daughter who she clearly loves. She and her husband go on a night out and end up at Seb’s jazz club, which is wildly successful and old school in ways he was repeatedly told would never work. Once he lays eyes on Mia, we are treated to a dizzying montage of what could have been; a reimagined history of their relationship from their first meeting onwards, where everything goes right, they both become wildly famous in their chosen fields, have a baby together (a son to differentiate from her real life, which has implications I don’t want to consider) and live the perfect life. Oh if only they had been nicer and luckier and the world had instantly appreciated their unbeatable talents. It’s not just narcissistic; it entirely undoes the slivers of pathos the film managed to achieve. Stone’s hard work and growing up, the wonderful result of her talent finally paying off, feels empty because it’s clear the film wants her to have the other option – the other option it did nothing to work towards.
La La Land is a fantasy, and it’s one many will be craving during times like this, but it’s also straining to be something more substantive, even as it puts little effort into crafting that reality. There’s enough here to recommend – when it’s firing on all cylinders, it feels alive and hopeful in ways one can’t help but be thrilled by – but its blatant yearning for a simpler past ignores the shades of grey in those technicolour days that made them so special.