There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, that after Jacques Demy turned in his first draft of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, its producers had three notes: make it in black and white, change the title, and cut the songs. They were wrong, of course, but it speaks to the movie’s power that it would’ve worked anyway; beneath the lavish Technicolor and hypnotic score, it’s just a heart-wrenching tale of the exquisite inevitability of disappointment.
Taking its cues—visual, inspirational, thematic—from Demy, La La Land emerges from a similar perspective of inauthentic authenticity. It’s proudly backward-looking, unoriginal, and featherweight. That’s not an easy space to occupy these days; nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
The movie opens with a dumb, movie-nerd joke: the Cinemascope logo in square Academy ratio. But then the edges stretch and stretch until the screen meets the auditorium walls. The camera descends onto a bottlenecked L.A. freeway and, within moments, La La Land breaks into a dazzling, unbroken number as gigantic as the frame, defying audiences not to fall for it.
For its first hour, the movie is a rush of primary colors and primary emotions. A gaga confection of star-powered giddiness, it’s a sugary, stupid rush. Led by Emma Stone at her most enchanting, the camera swoops and whirls with bubbly glee while Ryan Gosling, a breathy singer and languid hoofer, lends a veneer of “grounded” reality.
But the dream fizzles halfway through. There, the movie introduces its version of a villain and conflict. These tune-bird lovers, so emotionally enthusiastic, lungs bursting into song, can’t talk through a simple disagreement. The simulacrum of tension tests the movie’s seams; its fragility unmasked, the charm quotient drops precipitously and never recovers. By the time the movie jolts back to life in epilogue, the thrill is gone.
Still, La La Land’s first half is so intoxicating that griping feels as frivolous as the movie itself. Perfection is too much to ask for, even in Hollywood. That’s what Demy was getting at: even disappointment can be sublime.
La La Land. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, and John Legend. Opens in Kansas City December 16, 2016.