One look at the trailer for Damien Chazelle’s La La Land and images of West Side Story, Singin’ in the Rain, and An American in Paris will come rushing to mind. The bright bold colors, the elaborate dance sequences, the simplicity of the story, and even the setting itself are all fantastic, spot-on reminders of the heyday of the Hollywood musical. It’s an utterly beloved genre that has seemingly evaporated from the contemporary movie-going experience. But as praise and Oscar buzz swirls around the charming tale that’s part boy-meets-girl, part A Star is Born, I find myself pondering the nature of homage itself.
While I think La La Land is expertly made, visually stunning, and thoroughly entertaining, I also find it hollow. Yes, it’s a fantastic callback to the old musicals of the day, but why? To what end? And is it even fair to ask the question?
Throughout my watch, I found myself repeatedly questioning the decisions behind the film. If it’s supposed to be a true homage to a genre that relied heavily on its insanely multi-talented stars, why were Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone cast? Their voices are passable if not pleasant, but it’s obvious that neither are skilled or trained singers. They do their best in the dance sequences, but again, if you’re looking for Gene Kelly, this ain’t it. And if the point, then, was to hire actors that were specifically not skilled at those things to create an air of realism and honesty, then why hire two of the most in-demand actors working today? Wouldn’t lesser-known or even fresh-faced actors make this point better?
Chazelle has said in interviews that he was looking for that Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy vibe, but I don’t think Gosling or Stone come close to emulating that dynamic. This is not to say that either of them put out poor performances, far from it. Gosling is utterly charming and Stone’s wit and emotional subtlety shine through every scene. The problem is that there seems to be no reasoning behind this decision, or at least not one that serves the supposed mission of the film.
Not even the central story of La La Land brings something new to the table. Shades of the fantastic French musical Umbrellas of Cherbourg run throughout the film, but its famously bittersweet ending means that not even that element of La La Land deviates from the template.
With all of this care and attention to detail put into mimicking the films of yesteryear, no thesis emerges. There’s no reasoning as to why this particular story needed to be told this particular way, and that’s where I think it fails. When I consider other homages, it’s their unique spin on their subject matter that propels them toward greatness.
Scream flipped the slasher genre on its head while lovingly following in the footsteps of classic ‘80s teen horror films like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Its script was infused with humor and direct references to the patterns we’d all become aware of by that point (the “final girl,” the fakeout death of the killer, etc.) without ever delving into spoof territory. Similarly, though it feels wholly singular to us today, Raiders of the Lost Ark created one of the most iconic film heroes of all time by celebrating the history of the cliffhanger serials Spielberg and Lucas remembered from their youth. Most recently, the terrific indie film The Love Witch re-created a pitch-perfect 1960s camp-horror film, but shirked expectations with its modern, feminist slant. As all of these films celebrate their source material, they bring so much new to the table that the homage is only supplementary to their larger goals.
In La La Land, instead of seeing shades of greatness, I see only shades of The Artist (2011). Lauded by audiences and critics alike, the film won big during awards season, taking home the Best Actor award for star Jean Dujardin as well as Best Picture and Best Director. But The Artist in its loving homage to silent film, failed to do more. It worked to re-create the charm of It (1927) and City Lights (1931), but it had nothing to say beyond that. Now, despite its acclaim in 2011, it’s been largely forgotten while other films of the year such as Melancholia and Drive seem to have cemented their places in the canon.
Should La La Land win big, a similar fate would not surprise me. All its artistry feels like mere mimicry, however expertly executed.