Reviews: La La Land

Did Not Blow Me Away Until the End (Spoilers)

While a certain amount of Hype Backlash has been made concerning the massive influx of popularity garnered by La La Land, claims that it pales in comparison to classic epic romances like Titanic or Gone with the Wind seem to neglect that a movie offering such parallels must be doing something right. To put things lightly, there are many, many things that elevate this movie to admirable heights.

The two leads, played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, immediately cement their status as two individuals stubborn enough to continue their fruitless paths to success without a second thought. It isn't until they meet that they decide to maybe try things differently. There is enough ground at the beginning to cement the two as a cute, believable pair, though my biggest problem with La La Land is that while Stone and Gosling have an undeniable chemistry, they seem too engulfed in their own acts to drive it all the way home. Fortunately, this reflects their own characters' dilemmas, and while it doesn't save their romance, it does indeed reinforce the movie’s overall theme.

This is not a movie about a couple whose love triumphs at the end—hell, Damien Chazelle even hooks up the two characters in the middle of the movie because he wants us to enjoy it while it lasts. This is a movie about those real loves we feel throughout our lives, and the dedications we make in our memories that make up who we are as people. Both Mia and Sebastian fulfill their dreams in the end, and though we scarcely see how they're doing before they briefly wander back into each other's lives, they seem pretty happy with how far they've come since they split. Mia's Fantasy Sequence reflects the part of herself that she dedicated to Sebastian, while Sebastian's club demonstrates his.

After two hours of our characters realizing and making their dreams come true in a world filled with grand song and dance, it's the five year time skip and the reality of our two lovers drifting apart where most decide not to suspend their disbelief, ironically enough. Even the nostalgic feeling of La La Land being a love letter to classic jazz musicals hearkens comparison to a look back at a beautiful relationship and how we may have thought it would never end. But ultimately, this ends up being a movie about how dedication to the past can shape a lively and lasting future, both through its look at the evolution and influence of jazz, and its analysis of a relationship that features its willing contenders growing into the individuals they want to be without ending up together. The knowing smile shared by Mia and Sebastian at the very end serves as a salute—a thank you—for changing each of their lives.

In the end, music changes people, people change each other, and people change.

Not Quite Good Enough

La La Land sets its tone perfectly in the first five minutes. The movie opens on a modern day LA traffic jam. One lady breaks into song whilst she sits at the wheel, and within moments, seemingly everyone in the city is dancing and diving across their cars, joining in on a huge old timey musical number. Whereas The Artist was a throwback to the silent movie era, La La Land is a pastiche of the big grand musicals of old. And it pulls that off masterfully.

This movie favours big, long takes so that you can see just how well composed, photographed and rehearsed every moment is. The story is deliberately made to be as uncynical and simplistic as possible, so as to better hang original musical and dance numbers off of it. It looks gorgeous and on a technical level it gets nothing wrong. It is worth seeing for the novelty factor alone, whilst the execution of the idea is excellent and I don't hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

But it also isn't quite good enough. La La Land lends itself to be compared to the likes of Singing in the Rain or On the Town, and that's where the problems come in. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are both tremendously talented and versatile actors, and this movie showcases them singing, tap dancing, playing Jazz piano and acting their asses off. But watching La La Land, you can tell that they are actors first and performers second. Meanwhile, the likes of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly got to be in dance musicals specifically because they are performers first, and the best damn tap dancers in the world. Unfortunately for Gosling and Stone, this makes all the difference to me. These movies serve to show off some amazing singing and dancing, I expect to see amazing singing and dancing. What we get is some quite good singing and quite good dancing. Quite good is not good enough. There was never a bad scene, but there was never a truly memorable one. There was no singing in the rain.

When you are left with only a quite good musical, you pay more attention to the romance and drama (which are traditionally quite simple and superficial in these things). I liked the way my wife described the problem: "There is a nice scene where the two gradually begin to hold hands. But it isn't electric. In something like Pride and Prejudice, holding hands with Mr Darcy is such an electric moment it makes you want to go jerk off somewhere. But that chemistry isn't here, and what you get is some generic romance like out of the The Note Book, but worse."

I will reiterate: it is a good movie that is completely worth watching. But it isn't quite good enough to be worth remembering.

Old Hollywood Magic

La La Land opens with a single long take, going past several cars in gridlock on an offramp to L.A. The audio treats us to the music playing on their radios. Then, one of the drivers starts singing, and the people emerge from their cars, joining in a big crowd song & dance number, the title flashing on screen as they finish.

Quite frankly it's amazing that this kind of film even got made. Not only the fact that it's a modern movie musical, but it's one that's wholly original, being neither an adaptation of a previously successful Broadway show (as 2014's Into the Woods) not a jukebox of familiar songs (as was the panned Walking on Sunshine). And not only that, but it's a deliberate throwback to classic movie musicals like Singin' in the Rain, Top Hat, and On the Town. The leads have a dance right out of a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rodgers flick.

The plot and main characters are fairly simple. An aspiring actress and a hopeful jazz pianist meet cute in L.A. and try to progress their careers and their relationships. If the characters sound stock, they kind of are. If they're engaging, it's more because of relatability and earnestness (particularly on the part of Emma Stone's character). However, the simplicity doesn't prove a detriment, which allows the film to be an elegant but surprisingly down-to-earth throwback.

Other viewers may roll their eyes at the nostalgia-tripping, as this is indeed a Hollywood movie about Hollywood movies, not as dissimilar from the likes of Hugo or The Artist as it might appear at a first glance. Still, if you don't mind movies like that, it's more than worth a watch.

And while I told you all about the film's opening, I'm not going to spoil the ending, except to say that the film's finale is staggering.