Film Review: La La Land

Modern-Day Musical Should Garner Fans Despite Flaws

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
La La Land
“Next up on “So You Think You Can Dance” ...”
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Kudos are deservedly due to filmmaker Damien Chazelle for unabashedly and unironically embracing the antiquated, Busby Berkeley-style song-and-dance musical with his sophomore effort, the lovingly assembled La La Land. Chazelle made his writing-directing debut with 2014’s hard-hitting musical drama Whiplash. His follow-up is a change of pace which will nab fans and awards in near equal measure for its sheer nostalgic novelty.

It’s not that Hollywood doesn’t make musicals anymore. It’s just that recent examples of the genre usually trip over one another trying to impress modern audiences with their convention-breaking originality. Take, for example, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pop-cultural smash
Hamilton. Sure, it’s a stage show and not a movie (yet)—but it’s successful mostly for its brash mash-up of old school Broadway showmanship and hip-hop lyrical stylings. It’s everything modern musicals dream of being. La La Land, on the other hand, makes few concessions to the modern world. It’s a resolutely old-fashioned, Hollywood-born-and-bred musical paying tribute to everything from Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to Vincente Minnelli’s An American In Paris.

The setting for
La La Land is modern-day cell-phones-and-traffic-jams Los Angeles. During a sprightly and energetic opening on a vehicle-clogged rush hour freeway, we meet our two protagonists: wannabe actress Mia (Emma Stone) and impoverished jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). The two “meet ugly,” honking at one another in frustration. Their rocky connection continues several scenes later when Mia stumbles across Sebastian playing heartfelt jazz piano in a cocktail bar—only to have him storm angrily past her after being fired from the gig by an unappreciative boss.

Months later, at a party in the Hollywood Hills, the two singletons finally introduce themselves to one another. Before the evening is out, they’re sharing a sunset soft-shoe number on the twisty canyon road outside. She works at a coffee shop on a movie studio lot serving lattes to the movie stars she dreams of being. He plays piano in rinky-dink restaurants, hoping one day to open his own jazz club. They’re artistic dreamers, you see, united in their profound hope for something bigger and better.

La La Land’s ability to meld its rough-edged contemporary setting with the fantasy-filled tropes of vintage Hollywood musicals is admirable. It’s as if Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and Dracula wandered into an ultraviolent current-day slasher flick and looked perfectly at home. That’s not an easy thing to pull off. In individual, inspired moments, La La Land sings and soars, leaving audiences hungry for more. But in the long run, its gimmick (or total lack thereof) starts to run thin.

The film treads a fine line between wonderfully nostalgic and way-too-on-the-nose referential. The ending, for example, is swiped directly from
An American in Paris. It’s beautiful. But the original was better. In comparison to the classics, La La Land can’t help but fall short. There are great ideas at work here, make no mistake. Taking a musical out of the studio and tossing it into the real-life streets of Los Angeles is liberating. The glossy, jewel-toned cinematography of La La Land lands somewhere between Technicolor Era Hollywood and a brand new box of Crayolas. Most audiences will love the film with few reservations. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that La La Land just doesn’t achieve the heights of greatness it wants to.

For all its swooningly romantic pas de deux under starlit skies,
La La Land’s love story feels rather pedestrian. That is, admittedly, part of its appeal—elevating the ordinary with cinematic flights of fancy. But there’s not quite enough in the characters of Sebastian and Mia and their will-they-or-won’t-they pairing to have much of an emotional impact. The “will her one-woman stage show catapult her to fame?” and his “will he have the integrity to open a mega-successful jazz club?” are similarly hackneyed when you get right down to it. The ending skirts the usual pat wrap-up with a dose of bittersweet reality—but there’s just not quite enough at stake here. It’s your standard boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl schtick.

Musically speaking, the songs aren’t exactly Lerner and Loewe, either. They get the job done and are fun in the moment, but few audience members will be singing them on the way out. Vocally, everybody does well enough. Unfortunately, however, the performances all come off as a bit too … timid. Stone and Gosling aren’t professional singers—which is fine—but instead of simply belting out their numbers, they mouse-whisper their way through each one. It’s an odd decision from square one. This marks the third time Stone and Gosling have been an on-screen couple (after 2011’s
Crazy, Stupid, Love. and 2013’s Gangster Squad). They work well together. They look pretty on screen. They have chemistry all right. But are they Tracy and Hepburn or Astaire and Rogers for the 21st century? No, not really.

And that’s the core problem with
La La Land. It is an unapologetic throwback to the MGM musicals of yesteryear. It’s Singin’ in the Rain for millennials. But it just doesn’t stack up to those classics it so slavishly references. Despite all its flaws, is it one of the most refreshing and unexpected films of the year? Absolutely. Go see it, you’re very likely to enjoy the hell out of it. Just don’t be surprised if you spend as much time pondering the defects as you do reveling in the strengths.
La La Land

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