The entire sequence owes a debt to “West Side Story”, just as myriad sequences to come owe myriad debts to other musicals, which is why the reference point that kept popping into my head throughout “La La Land” wasn’t a song and dance extravaganza but Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho.” Chazelle’s film is not a shot for shot remake of anything, granted, even if there are plenty of shots to pick out from other films, but “La La Land’s” foremost intent is not to advance the cinematic conversation. This is, shall we say, Love Letter Cinema, a missive penned on celluloid by Chazelle to the forebears he clearly adores so much. Still, for all of Chazelle’s evident adoration, he seems to forget one crucial component – that is, creating bona fide characters.
Each of Chazelle’s previous films centered on jazz and so it is no surprise that one of his two principal characters, pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), is written as both a savant and savior of jazz. That he’s a prickly reactionary isn’t so odd when considering his intolerance for any progressions in the genre except that Chazelle, confusedly, seems to think this is charming, just as he seems to think the noisy imperiousness with which Sebastian lays on his car horn to occasionally announce his arrival is charming too. And because Chazelle seems to like Sebastian so much, he presents the character as is, with virtually no arc, aside from his burgeoning relationship with Mia.
Mia is a barista who dreams of being an actress and she might be a good one, but we never really know, considering her climactic one woman show happens entirely off screen and the rest of the time she is stuck in bad audition hell. Her aspirations do not warrant as much screen time as Sebastian’s. Stone, however, still wrings some livewire energy out of the role, like a scene where she ruffles Sebastian’s feathers during his gig with an 80s cover band by requesting his un-preferred Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” and then erupts into a spastic dance to taunt. It’s her best dance in the movie, and the most unprofessional one, which probably says something.
It’s also indicative of their relationship. They are the Ginger and Fred, of course, beginning at odds only to fall in love, and yet their falling in love is the least convincing element in the movie, perhaps because their relationship is based less on romance than reinforcement. He pushes her to act, even though he’s never seen her act, and she pushes him to open his own jazz club, even though she explicates that she doesn’t like jazz. Indeed, a musical number at the Hollywood Planetarium finds them literally – kind of - departing the earth to float among the stars, a gorgeous evocation of each one trying to push the other higher.
Unfortunately, their lack of romantic heat means the conclusion fails to burn as brightly as might have, because it just doesn’t hurt as much as it could have. Then again, that might not be such a bad thing. “La La Land” knows the harsh truth about dreams, it just refuses to completely surrender to that truth, which is why it’s called “La La Land” in the first place, and why it concludes not with some montage of woe but a willed fantasy that flagrantly and delightfully quotes “An American in Paris” and “Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” With no characters to truly hang its hat on, this sequence is really just a delivery device for The Magic of Movies, and yet, in a way, it is still elementally magic unto itself. I kept thinking of the singing voices of Stone and Gosling, which are no grand shakes, and how they emblemized “La La Land’s” entire feel, like someone in a little club covering a few standards with a lot of love in their heart. Whatever fails to work, well, whatever, because I was still happy to go along for the ride.