Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
There are times when I give in to a particular perverse urge on certain days of the year. I have, for instance, watched Rashomon on St. Patrick’s Day or an Australian movie like Breaker Morant on Super Bowl Sunday. This year, for the 4th of July, I figured I’d embrace the day and instead look at something truly American in origin: the movie musical. In this case, that means the most highly acclaimed musical since Chicago: La La Land. I had high expectations going into this, as did my wife. In fact, I waited for several days to watch this until she could watch it, too.
I want that on the record, because it’s going to be very easy to write off this review as simply being the fact that I often dislike musicals. La La Land didn’t live up to the hype, and my wife had the same opinion. Not 15 minutes in, she looked over at me and said, “I’m not loving this.”
Chances are very good that you’ve seen (and liked) La La Land already, so I’ll be brief in summary. Mia (Emma Stone) has come to Hollywood to pursue her dream of being an actress. Pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) loves jazz and wants to open his own club because he feels like real jazz is dying and he wants to save it. The pair have a trio of meet-not-so-cutes until they decide that they are kind of attracted to each other and start seeking out each other’s company.
Mia is having trouble landing roles, so she works in a coffee shop on a movie lot. Sebastian plays gigs when he can and complains about how the music world is forgetting about the importance of jazz. Eventually, the two move in together and attempt to figure out their lives. Sebastian gets a job playing keyboards for a new band fronted by his old friend Keith (John Legend), but they play a more modern, pop-influenced jazz that Sebastian doesn’t really like. Mia, convinced by Sebastian that she can do better than attempting to land bit roles, writes a one-woman play about her decision to leave Colorado.
Ah, but she is upset with him for giving up on his dream. He thinks that giving up on his jazz club means that he’s grown up and is taking responsibility for his life. Her play flops and he misses the opening (and only) performance because he needed to be at a photo shoot for the band. Upset and discouraged, Mia returns to Colorado. But this is Hollywood, and that means that perhaps someone with influence saw her play and liked it. Of course that’s what happens, but I’ll leave the rest of the third act out.
So there’s a lot to talk about here. We’ll start with the musical portion of the film. Again, I’d love to write this off as me just not liking musicals, but these are the weakest parts. All the will in the world isn’t going to make Ryan Gosling a singer or a dancer, which means the dancing is pretty simplistic, and he doesn’t do a lot of singing (thankfully). Emma Stone is in better shape here, but frequently her voice is so small that she’s barely audible.
The best part of the film is the overall look and the direction. Damien Chazelle did an incredible job of creating a film that very much hearkens back to the classic musicals of the past and also shows a more modern face. It is beautiful to look at, shot for shot. The art direction and cinematography are impeccable. It’s not a surprise that the film won Oscars for production design and cinematography. Frame by frame, the film is absolutely gorgeous and directed within an inch of its life.
The screenplay is another matter. I genuinely dislike these characters. Mia is alternately mousy and timid and willing to accuse others of giving up on their dreams. Sebastian is kind of a smug prick, someone who takes himself far too seriously until he suddenly doesn’t. These changes in the characters don’t work for me at all. Worse, I didn’t buy the romance at all. These two characters actively dislike each other. They are rude and mean to each other in their first three meetings, and the fourth, which happens very soon after the third, suddenly they’re falling for each other. I don’t buy it, and that’s a problem.
As for the twin performances of Stone and Gosling, well, I understand the nominations for both of them, even if I don’t like the characters at all. The performances are good, with Emma Stone really coming into her own in the third act at an audition. She’s better in the film than Gosling is, although he handles Sebastian pretty well.
So, in a couple of words, I’m disappointed. I didn’t hate La La Land, but I didn’t like it that much and I expected to like it a lot. I had very high hopes for it. I can only justify my disappointment as being more than me disliking the musical genre by saying that I think my wife liked it less than I did.
Yes, I know we’re in the minority on this, and that that minority is very small. I tried. I really tried and I really wanted to like it. I just couldn’t. Oh, and full disclosure--thanks to Nick Jobe for the title of this review. I was struggling with that, and an offhand Facebook comment gave me the perfect title for the review.
A friend on Facebook linked me to a review from The New Yorker from months ago that said some things that I wish I had said about La La Land. The author comments that Damien Chazelle's characters are generally engaged in entirely solo pursuits. The main character from Whiplash doesn't play with a band, he attempts to take one over with his playing. In La La Land, Seb wants to play jazz, but he's at is best (and plays in his club) as a solo act. Mia is only remotely successful when she creates a show entirely about herself, and her big break comes when she gets a role that isn't really written but that will be built entirely around her. These are good points, and they lead me to something I find very interesting about this film and about Damien Chazelle.
La La Land is almost an exercise in solipsism. Mia is only successful when she's concerned entirely with herself, something that is also true of Sebastian. In giving us this story, Damien Chazelle has gone the Quentin Tarantino route. Chazelle is clearly referencing a lot of things throughout the film. The third act, for instance, is straight out of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Like Tarantino, Chazelle is pointing around, effectively saying, "Look at all the stuff I can reference!" If you ask him, though, like Tarantino, I don't think he'd have any idea why he's referencing anything beyond simply wanting to reference something. There's no purpose behind it beyond showing everyone how much he knows...an exercise that is as solipsistic as those of Mia and Sebastian. It's really impressive on the surface and once you dig below that...there's nothing there.
Why to watch La La Land: Hard to argue with the fact that it’s beautifully directed.
Why not to watch: It doesn’t live up to the hype.