La La Land is a big, bombastic musical – but it's the smaller gestures that make it sing

La La Land is at its most convincing in those intimate exchanges between Gosling, with his melted eyes, and Stone, with her anime face.

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“Is it nostalgic?” asks Mia, the aspiring actor played by Emma Stone in the musical La La Land. “Are people gonna like it?” She’s agonising over the play she has written but this is surely the voice of the writer-director Damien Chazelle asking these questions of his movie. To which the answers would be: “Duh!” and “On the whole, yes.”

Nostalgia permeates La La Land right from the opening announcement that it has been shot in CinemaScope, the widescreen format that was prevalent in the 1950s. When Mia returns home, strolling past street murals of Chaplin and Monroe, a giant poster of Ingrid Bergman gazes down from her bedroom wall. And when she goes on a date with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), it is to a picture palace with a light bulb-studded marquee.

Old Hollywood is as glorious and intimidating to these 21st-century lovers as it was in Pennies from Heaven when Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters danced in front of the flickering image of Astaire and Rogers, before entering the cinema screen themselves.Something similar happens in La La Land when Mia and Sebastian drive up to the Griffith Observatory after watching Rebel Without a Cause; it’s as though the movie has spilled over into real life.

Sebastian is Mia’s partner in nostalgia. He’s a pig-headed pianist who rhapsodises about jazz and dreams of owning a club but earns a crust playing easy-listening standards. He and Mia are at the foothills of their ambitions, not always certain whether they should go on climbing or settle for life at a lower altitude. La La Land asks the same question as Chazelle’s previous film Whiplash: how do you keep your dreams alive without letting them kill you?

When modern directors tackle the musical genre, there can be an element of hostility present, as though they are slaying a dragon – or, more likely, a sacred cow. La La Land is not volatile like Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York or Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. It’s a middle-of-the-road confection, pretty rather than deep, which never quite makes its own mark. It takes its melancholic mood from Edward Hopper and its eye-popping colours from Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The most original moments are minor ones: glitter thrown into a hairdryer creates a small silvery blizzard, a handbag matches a row of purple wheelie bins in a back alley.

What’s intriguing is that the film bestows on this stepping stone of a romance the sort of attention traditionally reserved for amour fou. It demonstrates, in a series of casually elegant dance duets beginning with a soft-shoe shuffle on a deserted back road in the Hollywood Hills, how Mia and Sebastian connect in their nostalgic reveries for the briefest of moments. Each time, they are dragged back to the present by the bleeps and blasts of the modern world – a ringtone, a smoke alarm, the chirp of an electronic fob.

The film is at its most convincing in those intimate exchanges between Gosling, with his melted eyes, and Stone, with her anime face. When it reaches for an ambitious, razzle-dazzle effect, such as in the over-complicated dance number in a traffic jam (shades of Fame) and a poorly directed sequence in which the couple start flying like Goldie Hawn in Everyone Says I Love You, it comes across as merely ersatz. This is not, after all, a film of grand passions.

Nor is Chazelle at his most assured on a large canvas. He is an economical visual storyteller who can nail the small, telling moments. He explains in just two brief shots, for instance, exactly why Sebastian puts his ambitions on the back burner to tour with a band he hates. What Chazelle can’t always do is join up the dots to give the film momentum. After a lively scene introducing Sebastian’s sister (the excellent Rosemarie DeWitt), the picture rashly casts her aside, which is a mistake in such a long and underpopulated movie. It can’t rely, either, on the new compositions to whoosh it along, with the exception of a tentative piano number called “City of Stars”, which is first sung casually by Gosling as he strolls along a pier at night. The rest of the songs aren’t heartfelt so much as Heart FM; Magic rather than magical.

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Now listen to a discussion of La La Land on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge