La La Land Review

Posted: January 6, 2017 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

la-la-landWritten by Daniel Simpson

Though people are often very critical about how rooted in nostalgia modern blockbusters are (think Rogue One or Jurassic World), less has been said about the influence of nostalgia on the seemingly more adult prestige pictures of the current decade. Take 2011, when three of the biggest players in the awards race, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, and The Artist, were all built around nostalgia for bygone areas in art history. None of these films were sequels, nor were they specifically aping on the exact iconography of earlier films, but all were trying to evoke a certain mood which reminded its audience of the art of yesteryear. This is especially prominent of The Artist, a film celebrating the silent cinema of escapist Hollywood which was itself made with those same techniques and generally drenched in nostalgia. The film touched a chord with a certain audience, winning a slew of Oscars including Best Picture. I bring all this up because five years later we have a new film which is in many ways comparable to The Artist. That film is La La Land, a musical which is set in modern day, but is unabashedly a throw back to the escapist musicals of Old Hollywood.

The film is set in modern Los Angeles focusing on a pair of dreamers trying to make it in the entertainment industry. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who spends her days working as a barista, while Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist working in various sub par acts as he tries to accomplish his dream of opening a Jazz club where only traditional Jazz music will be played. The two cross paths a few times, but they don’t start to really hit it off until around meeting three. From there, they start a burgeoning friendship which quickly blossoms into an idyllic romance, but they’ll come to learn that pursuing love while pursuing their dreams is easier said than done.

The movie musical is far from dead, but the modern musical has drifted away from whimsy and fun and toward darker and more weighty fare. Sweeny Todd, Les Miserables, and even Chicago all have a much darker edge than what someone like Arthur Freed used to offer and these films are all also Broadway adaptations. La La Land eschews all of this. Not only is the film an original musical, it’s also a bright and energetic movie geared to provide some fun escapism. Writer/director Damian Chazelle boldly declares this in the opening scene, which sees a bunch of people stuck on the Los Angeles freeway engaging in a huge number, singing and dancing atop their cars and moving all over while the camera circles with the illusion of being a single, unbroken take. There’s lots of energy, movement, colour, and optimism. That isn’t to say every number follows fits this exact mold, but this general tone is maintained throughout. At this point, any doubts I may have had about an Old Hollywood musical made in modern day were shattered. Chazelle knows the tone he’s going for and commits himself fully. This sort of confidence and clarity is a big part of why the film works as well as it does.

The other crucial part of the equation is that Chazelle executes the various numbers like a total pro. The camera movements are swift and help bring a ton of energy, the movements are all choreographed very well, and the costumes also bring a ton of colour. The early numbers are typically the biggest and most grand, but they do get more intimate as the film goes. These later numbers are also well-shot, but they rely more on the chemistry and talents of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Thankfully, both have the talents to pull of these moments and their chemistry is also infectiously charming. The film climaxes with it’s most ambitious and important number, a sprawling piece which makes use of several locations, wonderful sets, fun music, and great choreography. This final number is also significant as it is one of the few that directly incorporates theme into the sequence and is all the stronger for it. Generally speaking, the music in the film is very well written. The instrumental work in particular is moving and highly memorable. The actual lyrics are a little less memorable than the orchestration, but they work just fine.

The question of whether La La Land works as a musical can be answered with a resounding yes. The numbers are all well-crafted and a lot fun, the lead performers work like gangbusters, the music is strong, and Chazelle displays a clear love of cinema with these set-pieces. Genre fans will likely be very impressed and I suspect even those lacking an affinity for musicals will likely gain a lot of enjoyment from the execution in La La Land. Beneath all the glitz and glamour though there is a story and that is also the area where La La Land most stumbles. I will say right off the bat that nothing about the writing of La La Land is flat out bad, but the film does fall short in a handful of areas that could have gone a long way in elevating the work. The central romance, for example, is actually a little undercooked. It doesn’t feel that way since Stone and Gosling work so well together, but the actual writing is not as strong as it could have been. The two engage in some early meet cutes before being plunged into romance even though it doesn’t seem they have that much in common. It’s a fairly standard set-up wherein the two characters meet a few times and don’t really like each other, but end up falling in love anyway because it’s a movie and they’re the main characters. I was willing to accept this due to the charm of the lead performers and because of the nature of the story, but at a certain point the film tries to analyze the costs of a relationship when both parties are pursuing hard to reach dreams. That’s a fine idea, but it didn’t quite sit right with me given how frivolous and light their romance had been up to that point.

The film not only addresses the pressures chasing dreams has on a relationship, but also the pressures on the dreamers to change and compromise. This is most evident with Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian, who is loyal to traditionalist Jazz to a fault. Some of his ideas about his jazz club border on mania. Early on, the film suggests that Sebastian’s dogmatic adherence to these rules is misguided. This is most evident with John Legend’s character, who makes a great argument that Sebastian’s loyalty to traditional Jazz prevents him from experimenting and finding anything new. But ultimately the film falls back on Sebastian’s original perspective as he remains stubbornly set in his ways. This could have worked if this perspective was meant to be challenging or morally ambiguous a la Inside Llewyn Davis, but instead the film seems to take this perspective at face value. It’s disappointing because the film does start to question the value of holding to tradition, itself significant as a meta-question regarding the validity of making sticking to musical traditions for a modern film, but balks at really exploring these ideas significantly.

Are most people going to care about the problems I’ve outlined in the last two paragraphs? Probably not, and to be honest that’s for the best. For whatever issues I have with La La Land, it’s also impossible to deny how well-made a film it is. The musical numbers are very well-crafted, the lead performers are very lovable in that old movie star way, and the film is further proof that Damian Chazelle is a great new talent. The film is also one of the most easily recommendable movies I’ve seen all year. Pretty much anybody will be able to find something to like in La La Land and I’m not in the least bit surprised that so many people love the film. Personally, I don’t think the film amounts to being much more than “just fun”, but it is some well realized and a kind of fun we don’t get from movies anymore. So, while I may not love La La Land as much as most of my peers, I certainly enjoyed it too.

B+

Comments
  1. brikhaus says:

    Interesting review. This one seemed to fly under the radar for most people. I didn’t even know it had been released. Now my wife is bugging me to go see it. I personally don’t mind musicals, just as long as they are done well. This one will hopefully hit the mark.

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