The cussedness of La La Land is almost enough to recommend it. Damien Chazelle's sumptuous tribute to romantics (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling) trying to keep lit the fire of a guttering culture is defiantly old-fashioned in form and style. It is, among other things, a throwback to the great MGM musicals of the Gene Kelly era, just starring people who haven't devoted their lives to the talents such musicals demand.
That failure to live up to the past is, in its way, Chazelle's subject. Everyone involved in La La Land is plucking up their grit and striving to pull off the impossible. His musical numbers explode with so much color and movement that to watch them is something like sticking your head into a confetti cannon. The best dancer in the movie is the camera operator, who Steadi-snakes through platoons of hoofing extras, capturing the idea of a dazzling musical more often than the performances that truly dazzle. It's almost clever that these sequences exemplify strain more than grace, as if Chazelle is saying, after each flat note or out-of-focus face, "See how much better things used to be?"
The tone here isn't all Singin' in the Rain giddiness. The darker moods of It's Always Fair Weather movingly weight the film with adult loss and disappointment. Its L.A. is muraled over with the faces of the stars of the past, but its movie palaces and jazz clubs keep closing down. My favorite scene is the simplest: the leads sitting down to dinner, facing at last everything that's not working out in their lives. For once we're watching something that could unfold on a stage -- we're watching performance.