La La Land (2016); Don’t Buy the Hype
La La Land has received an ongoing litany of praise in the past few months–beginning well before its official widespread release date. Critics have heralded it as “dazzling” and “unforgettable” with many making it a shoe-in for awards season. Multiple critics have vomited a slew of praiseworthy sentences even claiming it “the best picture of the year”. I beg to differ. La La Land is a gem that’s for sure, but it’s not a polished diamond in the rough. Instead it’s more a rose quartz, not rare to find and not the greatest gem you’ll stumble on, but it’s pretty enough to keep on your mantel and show off to your friends. Damien Chazelle’s musical romance isn’t bringing back the musical as so many reviewers will have you think, because to say that would be to assume that’s it’s a musical to be considered on par with the greats from the era it so proudly homages. La La Land instead is just helping keep us all talking about musicals so maybe more can continue to emerge.
I thoroughly enjoyed La La Land, but on the car ride back home after I started to pour over the details and break down what I liked and disliked about it, only then did I have that a-ha moment. I realized La La Land isn’t a great story, nor an exceptional musical for that matter. This is a film that owes the praise and accolades it’s receiving to cinematographer Linus Sandgren for creating such a beautifully sensational spectacle that could make even the most hardened critic ignore the gaping holes in the story that prevents this film from being a top notch banner of what a musical can and should be.
Let’s start with the facts: La La Land is not a great musical. It’s good at best but that’s mostly thanks to the score that wafts through the background. There’s maybe two songs that are actually memorable but that’s the music itself and not the wooden and shallow dance numbers. The spectacle around the songs–the colors, the costume design, the background set– is what makes them so enchanting and entertaining. If you’ve watched only handful of musicals, chances are you have seen better examples of this spectacular genre. La La Land simply doesn’t soar as a musical leaving director/writer Damien Chazelle to let his script act as the pulse of the film. At first glance it seems works, but then I began to pull at the other pieces of the thread causing the whole thing to unravel in a 20 minute car ride home mulling over the story with myself.
Aside from this, a major problem with La La Land is Ryan Gosling, and y’all I hate writing a sentence with that phrase. Gosling is my modern day Paul Newman, an actor whose skill and personal qualities cements my love for an entire lifetime. I have been in a long-term serious love affair with Gosling since I was about 9 years old. From “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” and “Breaker High” to The Believer and Dead Man’s Bones, I have been every step of the way with Gosling’s career. So that’s why it’s painful to admit, and even shocking to see, how mediocre he is La La Land. He dances with all lower body leaving his torso and arms lame and weak taking away from his overall pizzazz in dance numbers. The music isn’t written to accommodate his vocal talents resulting in subpar, and sometimes just bad, singing. While his character is somewhat likable, I didn’t care for him and it seems the script didn’t either. As someone who has followed Gosling since both of our adolescent years, I know he’s capable of wowing me in all of these areas, so why in La La Land didn’t he?
Then it hit me; because his character is developed to be a schmuck who makes no sense when you step back and examine him. This is a guy with a firm chip on his shoulders who meets Mia twice before beginning their relationship and each time he could care less. They do a literal song and dance about how he’s just not that into her. He denies the initial spark between them leaving her with no indication that he cares to pursue any type of relationship with her. And yet, like a light bulb going off when it’s convenient for the plot line, he shows up to her job adamant on spending a day with her. The formation of their relationship is equivalent to a trite pre-teen love affair. The span of time they spend together doesn’t lend itself to fully understanding the problems that arise between them. We see montage of their blossoming relationship but not the details needed to truly care (though kudos to the elements of cinema that make you cry on cue in spite of this). Instead of communicating with each other about their relationship, Mia and Sebastian both make assumptions about the other leading to a very confusing climax in the second act of the film.
These character just aren’t fleshed out enough to feel real. It’s almost a one-sided game here in which Mia wins getting the bulk of the attention and development while Sebastian, who is so undersold I didn’t even know his name coming out of the movie, plays out like a one note caricature of a tortured artist. These characters make the decisions they make because a script pushes them to, not because of the natural progression of human growth and change. Emma Stone delivers a great performance but like her character it’s all a facade. Stone has improved in talent over the years (and she’s the unmitigated star here), but has unfortunately lost the natural charm she once held in films like Easy A. Plus, a romantic chemistry is void between Stone and Gosling. They seem like old pals rather than passionate lovers.
So if that’s the case, why did I like this film so much? Because of the technical side, namely Chazelle’s always stunning movement while filming and Sandgren’s illustrious, mesmerizing use of color and framing of scenes along with the production design that is a lighthearted nostalgic treat for all the classic Hollywood film lovers. There’s odes to Singin’ in the Rain, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Humphrey Bogart, Louise Brooks, James Dean and Busby Berkeley’s stunning work (unfortunately La La Land doesn’t dive too much into good old Busby’s work during a pool scene, pun intended). There are excuses to provide cameos of almost every major star of the past so if you’re passionate about classic Hollywood then it’s exciting to watch!
In spite of the issues that prevent La La Land from being as immaculate as most critics have attempted to make it out to be, this is still a must see film. Television alone has kept keep the musical alive in the traditional sense in part due to NBC’s live musical resurgences, and also moving musicals into the future thanks to the CW’s hilarious “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” La La Land is somewhere between the two. Not wholly traditional, not necessarily foreword thinking but it is clever in its attempt and it’s a hell of ride. Just don’t think of it too much.
SEE IT. If you feel it’s a “best picture” type film, then let’s chat about it in the comments.