La La Land

Remember those wonderful MGM movie musicals? The ones from the studio system, with Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire, the simple feel-good flicks with those fabulous scores from legendary songwriters like the Gershwins and Leonard Bernstein and Adolph + Green? The ambitious La La Land aims to capture that spirit. Writer and director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) doesn't quite grab the stars, but he reaches for them.

Set in Los Angeles (La La Land, where dreams are made), La La Land tracks Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia's (Emma Stone) romance. And I do mean romance, which is one of the things I like about the movie. There is actually a sense of Romance, of exploration and finding beauty and hope in their world. Much like in (500) Days of Summer, this finds its characters actually appreciating their surroundings, not just complaining about traffic. (That's in there.)

Mia is an aspiring actress who, like Cathy in The Last Five Years, is becoming disillusioned with the rat race of auditioning, sitting in the waiting room and watching the girls just coming and going in dress that look just like hers, only to get in the audition room and find people who are 100% not paying attention. Sebastian is one of those throw back cats, a pianist who loves jazz. He has dreams of opening his own club. With stars in their eyes, they court, fall in love, dream, and... Well, I won't spoil it for you; let's just say life gets in the way.

It's a plot that easily could have come from one of those MGM gems, and what's refreshing about it these days is that's sincere in its romanticism. It also boasts a fabulous color palette, with gorgeous, colorful sunsets and rich jewel tones brightening up Mia's wardrobe. Sebastian is usually in a suit, and Ryan Gosling (The Ides of March) can wear a suit. (Production design by David Wasco; art direction by Austin Gorg; set decoration by Sandy Reynolds-Wasco; and costume design by Mary Zophres.)

I can't quite put my finger on what's keeping me from raving about this. It's surely right up my alley, but it simply didn't dazzle me the way I had hoped it would. I wished the leads were true singers and not actors who can carry a tune. (Gosling and Stone, who've worked together a couple of times before (most memorably in Crazy Stupid Love), are good and have great chemistry, but, Aaron Tveit, for example, is just as charming as Gosling, and Broadway's boyfriend can sang! One pro in the cast: John Legend, making his acting debut, as a musician (natch) who offers Sebastian a different dream.) I wished that Stone (Birdman) didn't look emaciated so I could focus on her performance and not on how startling thin she looks. I wished the sound mixing was better so I could decipher the lyrics in the ensemble numbers. I wished there were more songs.

Oh, those songs. That's what makes a movie musical a movie musical. There is a lot of music throughout, but it's a lot of theme and variation (and reprises). The songs that are included, though, are stellar, and that's thanks, in large part, to Tony-nominated lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The Dear Evan Hansen duo write evocative songs, and because they come from the musical theatre world, they're able to tell stories. Their lyrics are matched with Justin Hurwitz's music, which is solid. In fact, he provides lovely accompaniment for the musical fantasia toward the end, yet another homage to the MGM days.

References to those golden films abound. Even non-eagle-eyed viewers are likely to catch the nods to some of the greats, like An American in Paris, Singing in the Rain, and On the Town. But part of the problem for musical lovers like me is that if you make me think of any of those classics, you're asking me to compare you to them, and this didn't quite hit the mark (though maybe that's just nostalgia talking).

Still, there's much to praise. From the pastiche look of the film to Linus Sandgren's cinematography (many of the musical numbers appear to be filmed in a single take, allowing us to experience the songs uninterrupted), from the throwback banter of the leads to the welcome appearances by actors in supporting roles (like J.K. Simmons, who won his Oscar for Chazelle's Whiplash, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Guy Patterson himself, Tom Everett Scott). It's a valiant effort, and, hopefully, one that will inspire other filmmakers (and producers) to revive the movie musical, restoring it to its glory days.