From its opening number through much of the film, I have to say that I liked La La Land very much, but I could not love it.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle caused such a stir with his incendiary first feature Whiplash that, when I heard he was following it up with an old-fashioned musical about Los Angeles, I couldn't wait. And who can resist the pairing – the third, so far – of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone? I had a sense that if anybody could pull it off, it would be these three. And they do pull it off. Just... not quite all the way.
Gosling and Stone play two LA dreamers: he's a stubborn musician who longs, unrealistically, to open an old-fashioned jazz club; she's an aspiring actress with a writing background who decides to stage a one-woman show, since she can't otherwise get work. (Most Hollywood types see this as a pitiful Hail Mary for a narcissistic performer's non-starter career; Chazelle withholds judgment.) After meeting not-so-cute a couple of times, the two finally come together and try, for a while, to make things work. Then life gets in the way.
Chazelle has acknowledged Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as a major influence on La La Land, and it shows. He avoids the retina-burning colors (alas) and the recitative of Demy's classic, but his concept is similarly modest. Unlike modern movie musicals such as Moulin Rouge and Dancer in the Dark, there are no villains here, no operatic emotions, no deaths. Instead, as with Cherbourg, the story's focus is on the small triumphs and tragedies of everyday life. Only with a little added Hollywood fantasy.
There are lots of wonderful moments in the film, and Stone is especially charming. Yet the film never wowed me – and I was ready, willing, and able to be wowed. While composer Justin Hurwitz has delivered a fine score, the songs themselves fall flat in the lyrics department: they lack the wit of a great musical number, and they do not advance the narrative or shed light on the characters. Meanwhile, the tone of the film is a bit all over the place: sometimes it's quite realistic about life in 2016 Los Angeles, sometimes it's pure whimsy. (I'm not talking about the song numbers, either.)
If I had to pick a letter grade, I'd give La La Land a B-plus. My point is, it's very good – so good that you can see how close it came to being great. If Chazelle, et al, had spent just a little more time on the project, or had more seasoned collaborators, then the songs could have been catchier, the choreography more inventive, the characters less generic. Still, there is a lot to like, especially with the unexpectedly moving "suite", à la An American in Paris, that closes the film.