La La Land and all the images you see in this review are owned by Summit Entertainment
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Well this certainly jumped to everyone’s best of the year list, didn’t it? Too bad I didn’t get to see it in 2016 as the wide release wasn’t until January, but hey, at least I get to see it AT ALL. I mean who DOESN’T love song and dance numbers interwoven into a classic Hollywood love story, especially when it’s done as well as this one is supposed to be? Does this manage to be a film for the ages like those it takes its greatest inspiration from, or is this a mere copycat that doesn’t have a true identity of its own? Let’s find out!!
The movie takes place in present day Hollywood where we follow the struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and the struggling Jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they struggle their hearts out for their dreams and manage to find each other in the process. While Emma wants to simply get her big break, Sebastian has much more specific aspirations as he wants to open his own Jazz club right in the heart of the city, which is gonna be difficult because he’s flat broke and can’t even keep a steady gig going because he doesn’t want to play the set list provided… because he’s an artist I guess. Still, they manage to scrape by as they keep working towards their dreams while also putting on elaborate and non-diegetic song and dance numbers for our entertainment! Will the realities of the business crush their spirits and drive them apart as more and more chances start to slip away? Can a movie this unabashedly old fashion manage to work in a modern day context? Did they manage to outdo Tarantino as far as movie references!?
Look, I tried, alright? I gave it a shot, and I just couldn’t get invested enough for it to sweep me away in the pageantry and nostalgia of Old Hollywood coming back to life. Instead, I saw a threadbare story with unlikable characters that’s being shakily held up by decent musical numbers and some nice cinematography. However, the thing that pushes this me from being unenthused to damn near loathing is the pretension of it all and it’s rather smug and hostile view of anything made past 1969, such as when out of NO WHERE it takes a random cheap shot at A Flock of Seagulls. WHY!? What, is Eighties New Wave inherently inferior to tap dances and ho-hum show tunes!? It’s stuff like that throughout the movie that goes beyond being appreciative of this era of entertainment into downright disdain for anything else that’s come since then. It’s reminiscent of the likes of Reality Bites or even Rent where the filmmakers either didn’t understand exactly how the characters were coming across in the script or they actually AGREE with everything that’s being said in this pretentious puff piece. Fine. I’m not the most well versed in the era of film making that this movie is pulling from and so I’m missing out on a lot of the appeal because of that. Even with that though, I am a fan of cinematic musicals and I really shouldn’t be THIS bored and feeling THIS annoyed when watching something that believes itself to be so joyful and romantic. Is there a place for looking back at what came before and extolling its unique charms? Sure, but I don’t see why it has to come couched in an overblown sense of self-importance and an utter disdain for anything the least bit modern.
So before I start tearing this movie a new one, let’s at least get to some of the positives. I like all the technical stuff that’s obviously well done here which is the cinematography, the choreography, and pretty much all the Jazz music. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (along with most of the supporting cast) turn in fine performances for the roles that they’ve been given, and while some of the digressions into outright movie magic can prattle on for just a bit longer than is necessary, they’re done with the same kind of craftsmanship and care that made many of the classic films this is emulating so memorable. When the movie is on point and about being head over heels in love with what it’s paying homage to, it manages to be pretty infectious and carries a good portion of the movie. When it’s NOT on point… well, that’s where we start running into problems. Still, there are not a lot of movies trying to do what this movie manages to mostly succeed at, and on that point alone it’s at least worth taking note of even if it won’t ACTUALLY replace any of the old classics this so desperately wants to be.
Where this movie falters though is in three points; its show tunes, its characters, and its framing. Now pretty much ANYTHING involving jazz in this movie is done with sincere reverence and these moments are the highlights of the score, but plenty of the songs (especially the early ones) just don’t pack a whole lot of punch. It started right away with the first number which was emblematic of a lot of the problems we’d see with the songs. It starts off nice, the choreography is good, and the music is upbeat. Then they started signing, and I never really got a sense of the lyrics or if they meant anything of substance. Then I noticed that the camera was right in the middle of the action which you’d THINK would be a good idea to build up the excitement of these scenes, but then you realize that all these up close and first person style shots just means that we don’t get to see most of the awesome dance moves as they’re happening off screen and we’re constantly having to move around to see what could have been accomplished with a simple wide shot. And then it just kept going on and on and on, and it by the end it felt like a complete distraction rather than an actual start to the movie. Compare this to something Hairspray which manages to have great camerawork, bombastic vocals, and even provides the necessary exposition for the main character, the world she inhabits, and the comedic tone of the movie. The opening number does A LITTLE BIT of that, but not nearly enough when you compare it to much better examples of the genre. The movie repeats this pattern for many of the early songs, and while they aren’t all EQUALLY flawed, they all share these key problems; vocals aren’t strong, camerawork isn’t great, and they go on too long without serving much of a purpose. Fortunately, later numbers indulge MUCH more heavily in classic Hollywood movie magic which work a lot better (especially in terms of cinematography) even if they do tend to run a bit long.
The problems with the early musical numbers though are problems you could probably fix with some editing and maybe some solid voice over in post-production. The problems that are much worse are the ones that are deeply ingrained into the identity of this film. I don’t know about you, but yet another story where the main character is an artist who’s so damned conflicted about being a sellout, especially in THIS period of time, just holds zero appeal to me; especially if the movie does so with zero self-awareness of how selfish and arrogant that kind of outlook is. Ryan Gosling is just completely insufferable in this as a guy who’s got immense talent and is eminently likable, but can’t get his ego under check long enough to keep a job; or at least under check enough to not be a sad sack when he DOES get a job in his chosen profession. It makes it hard to root for him even when the movie is working its ass off (and succeeds in several places) to get you into his mindset and understand exactly what it is he loves about Jazz and why he cares so much about playing it right. At least with HIS character though, we get an idea of what drives him. The movie spends SO much time going into what he loves, why he loves it, and makes a case (though not a great one) for his attitude, but then when it comes to Emma Stone we get next to none of that. She barely has anything to do here and is extremely less developed than Ryan Gosling’s character which makes her scenes far less interesting to watch even if she isn’t as big a jerk as Gosling is most of the time. Worse yet, the movie makes an odd decision to never really delve into her passions until the very end of the movie. Those scenes where Ryan Gosling is pounding away at his keys with the spotlight on him and the rest of the world shut out so it’s just him and the music? Yeah, NOTHING like that is done for Emma Stone’s character until nearly the end of the movie and it’s such an odd choice in a movie that’s SUPPOSEDLY about both of them. Instead, her dreams of being an actress are represented by a couple of bad auditions and that’s it. Now to be fair, those scenes are important considering where the movie goes in the third act, but they still needed to give us at least a FEW moments of her being in the moment and in her element so that we can understand why she’s trying the first place instead of focusing on how often she fails or even skipping over some of the moments where she does succeed.
It gets worse when the movie actually puts these two together and we’re supposed to root for their relationship. The script just doesn’t have the kind of depth needed to sell the dramatic moments, and it was pretty clear early on that these characters (especially Ryan Gosling) weren’t even mature enough to handle a real relationship; a point that manages to be proven right considering how quickly things go down the tubes for them right when we get to the part of the story where that needs to happen (end of the second act). The movie itself is so shallow in its garish aesthetic and its intention of being an homage that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to even TRY to mine the emotional depths this fails to deliver on which isn’t to say that that kind of look is a BAD thing, but it doesn’t fit with the tone the script is trying to go for at certain points. The film has plenty of sincerity, but it’s all in the artistry and the music; not in the script. It’s just another thing about this movie that feels completely tone deaf in how it wants to be everything at once while thinking it’s succeeding at it.
Speaking of the tone, let’s get to how this movie frames itself and its characters. Let’s ask the BIG question here. Why does this movie exist? It’s basically a love letter. A rose tinted and nostalgic view of a time that we no longer live in. The embodiment of how our own flawed memories or the stories of times that we never lived can make us yearn for a time that never really existed. It’s not a bad place to start your story, and ideas like this have been explored before in films like Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and I’ll even through in stuff like Saving Private Ryan and Inglorious Basterds for its mythic idolization of The Greatest Generation (obviously approached in very different ways). Here’s where this movie gets it wrong. The one problem with nostalgia is that, if taken to the exclusion of everything else, it can foster resentment for where you ACTUALLY are even if what you idealized didn’t actually exist. That’s what this movie is. The movie is SO full of animosity and bitterness towards everything that’s changed since the era this wants to be a part of, and it comes out in some rather obnoxious ways; not the least of which being how Ryan Gosling is portrayed as the arbiter of TRUE JAZZ, while John Legend of all people is cast as someone who’s portrayed as total sell out what with his MODERN JAZZ that involves synthesizers and other awesome things. Yeah, THAT doesn’t come off poorly in the slightest! There’s nothing inherently sacred or superior about Old Hollywood and the kind of musicals they made during that time, so this ultra-defensive and straight up antagonistic stance just left a bitter taste in my mouth; ESPECIALLY considering how much of a meh emulation this ends up being compared to some of the great modern musicals like Hairspray, Chicago, and Moulin Rouge which similarly come from a place of nostalgia but without the pointless chip on their shoulders.
I’m probably being overly harsh on this just because it pushed very particular buttons for me (LEAVE A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS ALONE!!) and it’s clear that my opinion is very much in the minority. It’s just so… obsessive about its central conceit that it comes off like a fan film; albeit with a whole lot of polish and solid acting. If you’re looking for a modern day reminder of just how much you love other movies like Singing in the Rain and Hello Dolly, well I think you’re gonna like what this film has to offer. If you aren’t into those things… honestly I’m sure you’ll find something worth seeing here as the musical numbers from about the end of the first act all the way to the end of the movie are well executed and certainly call to mind a period of time that seems to have been forgotten yet still works just as well today as it did all that time ago. I personally am having a hard time recommending that you see this in the theater because of how obnoxious and smug I found the whole damn thing to be, but even with my rather sour outlook on the film, I still think it’s worth seeing at some point. Maybe wait for the home release if anything I’ve mentioned above makes sense, but even if you’re a sourpuss like me, a Matinee isn’t gonna feel like a TOTAL waste of time. MOSTLY a waste of time perhaps, but at least it’s got some solid Jazz tunes to keep you distracted!
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