When it comes to recent Best Picture handicapping, you rarely go wrong betting on movies about Hollywood itself. The movie business is an anxious industry, uncertain about its economic future, worried about its relevance in the age of prestige television, all too aware of its artistic surrender to the blockbuster machine — so when the Oscars roll around, its denizens reach eagerly for movies that address those anxieties head on.
Three of the last five Best Picture winners fit that self-referential mold. In 2011, The Artist offered straight silent-era nostalgia. The following year, Argo made the romance of the movies seem happily relevant to geopolitics and spycraft. The winner two years ago, Birdman, agonized over all the art-and-commerce concerns that everyone in movieland wants the world to think he wrestles with. And now, with La La Land as the favorite for this awards season, we’re likely to have our fourth in six years — another nostalgia trip, this time to the golden age of musicals, that’s also a celebration of all that’s gorgeous in a sun-kissed Los Angeles today.
That gorgeousness includes the unlikely beauty of L.A.’s traffic jams, one of which supplies the movie’s opening song-and-dance number, and our introduction to our leads, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), respectively a jazz-besotted musician and a barista-by-day aspiring actress. She gives him the finger on the highway; later he gives her a brush-off at his restaurant-pianist job, where he’s just been fired for straying from the only-Christmas-music rules; later still they meet for a third time at a Hollywood Hills party and finally the chemistry (and a little sunset song-and-dance routine) does its work, and they’re on their way to love.
It’s a very old-fashioned sort of love, and not only because they sing about it (huskily, tentatively, but charmingly enough). The movie is set in some version of the present, or the recent past — everybody’s driving Priuses — but its characters are old souls. Mia sleeps under an Ingrid Bergman poster, Sebastian is obsessed with Thelonious Monk; Mia secretly wants to be a playwright and Sebastian very openly wants to own a jazz club. In keeping with these 1950s-appropriate aspirations, they live as though the Internet and smartphones were barely there at all. The two lovers are constantly rushing around, surprising each other, appearing and disappearing in the way that people did before it was possible to text your way through life. Sebastian honks from the car whenever he picks Mia up; Mia rushes to the front of a movie theater when she arrives late for their date and peers out across the darkened seats; Sebastian comes back from a road trip and surprises Mia in their apartment; nobody ever seems to think of shooting a text to say “I’m here” or “I’ll be late.”
If they’re old-fashioned, though, they’re still ambitious, and this predictably is what comes between them. Sebastian sidelines his goals to go on the road with a jazz-rock band whose singer is played by real-life crooner John Legend. Mia writes a one-woman show in the hopes of escaping the hapless-audition rut. Then he feels like he’s selling out for her and she feels like she’s gone on a wild-goose chase for him and they end up frustrated and fighting and fracturing.
This is the boring part of the movie, the inevitable period of conflict in which the only songs are Legend singing cheesy pop. But the conflict gives way to a genuinely bravura climax, a montage of fantasy and flashback that’s the most beautiful section of a truly beautiful film — and also the place where it firmly leaves the template of the mid-century musical behind and brings in a dose of bittersweet realism instead.
The director, Damien Chazelle, is very young and extremely talented. He made 2014’s Whiplash, about musical obsession and harsh pedagogy, before he turned 30 and now has pivoted to this, an equally musical but otherwise very different film. It is, I venture, slightly better than most of the other recent Hollywood-centric Best Pictures (which probably means it will lose in an upset somehow), with the Gosling–Stone chemistry carrying the story and a stunning color palette making Los Angeles look like it did to newcomers in its golden age — like paradise on Earth.
Its only failing is unfortunately crucial to its genre: The songs themselves, while fine, are distinctly unmemorable. You’ll be impressed by what Chazelle does visually while people sing and dance, and that’s enough to make the movie a real pleasure — but a great musical should leave you humming its big numbers, or plant an earworm that stays with you for hours, and none of the tunes in La La Land is up to that standard. No doubt they would be a little catchier with pros belting them instead of the more amateurish and tentative leads. But it’s a poor tunesmith who blames his singers, and for La La Land to be a great movie, instead of just great fun, Chazelle needed songs that would have had us coming out not just smiling, but singing.