La La Land

Chazelle’s florid romp has chutzpah, I’ll give it that. But it succeeds precisely by skirting any seriousness, aesthetic or otherwise — it’s a trifle, and rather proud of itself for being a trifle. It’s as perfect an example of pastiche as I’ve seen in years, sampling joyously from a confectionary arrangement, mixing flavors and colors and moods and movements. The problem is that so little of it feels genuinely inspired. Everything is an effect: the appearance of bravura filmmaking, the appearance of lyrical abandon, while in actuality it has the fast-fading glow of nostalgia.

And nostalgia for what, exactly? The actual center of Chazelle’s affections is unclear. He certainly admires the musicals of Golden Age Hollywood, and the greats of early modern Jazz, but he seems to approach them with a kind of amiable respect, with the kind of sober appreciation that can be learned, but never with something approaching passion. This dynamic is played out in the movie itself, in the character of Sebastian. “Seb,” as he apparently prefers to be called, is a connoisseur. It’s notable that his grand ambition is not to carry the torch forward, composing and playing his own jazz, but to own and operate a jazz club. He is a musician, but this is a means to an end; his desire is to curate, more than to contribute. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it shouldn’t be mistaken with art, with the creative process itself. And Seb is defiantly, stubbornly curating a kind of jazz that’s firmly in the past, for all of its greatness. The question is: when we see Seb learning to play Thelonious Monk on the piano — repeatedly going over a single passage — do we understand this as a joke? That a master of innovation and spontaneity as Monk is being mimicked so assiduously, in a way he would very likely disavow?

It’s one thing to learn from the masters. It’s another to build private shrines. Again, Chazelle seems to know this, and he does provide something of a foil in the character of Mia, excellently portrayed by Emma Stone. She’s all passion, and she illustrates the limits of Seb’s preciousness. The problem with Mia is that she doesn’t go much beyond a foil. We get a bit of backstory, but it feels like exactly that: a shading-in of necessary information, rather than an organic extension of character. She’s intelligent and decent and she can act, but she doesn’t seem to have much in the way of an inner life. She’s another pure-hearted gal from a small town with unimpeachably grand dreams, and, with a little help from her friends, she achieves them. There are some fleeting moments where we see glimpses of the kind of inner fire that drives a person like Mia to greatness, but they’re all too brief and incidental.

Perhaps I’m being ungenerous. Unlike his previous effort — the overwrought Whiplash, which devolved into ludicrousness over its dramatization of musical excellence as a kind of masochism — La La Land is buoyant and occasionally witty. It seems churlish to demand rare greatness from a case of obvious, if not terribly remarkable, talent. But the lacking dimension still nags at me, and is probably best summed up as the human element. There are quite a few wrong notes in the film, such as when Mia, watching Seb perform, seems utterly bewildered that he would deign to make music with such a pop-oriented outfit. This and other beats are triple underlined, and serve the plot in defiance of the characters. This schematic quality is of a piece with Chazelle’s careful deployment of his taste — he likes the right jazz musicians, the right directors (P.T. Anderson in particular should be very flattered) — with everything orchestrated to provide the right appearance. It’s a work of taste, a work of good creative decisions. But it never really ignites, it never feels genuinely spontaneous — and thus every time it mentions true greatness — like Monk, or the LP of John Coltrane in Seb’s apartment, one can’t help but note the disparity.