Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Millennials: The Musical

Films: La La Land
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.


  1. Yeah, like I said, I can totally see anyone born before like... 1980, maybe?... not liking this movie. I actually agree with a lot of what you said. But the difference is, I understand these characters and their struggles. I understand their big dreams and big failures. It's definitely my generation portrayed in these characters. But I found a LOT of layers to this movie that it seems you didn't, but that's more an age thing, I think.

    As for the music, I liked most of it. I *love* Emma Stone's audition song around the start of the third act. That's the best moment in the entire movie. Hell, the entire third act was done so well. Though to be fair to your wife, I was unsure in the first 15 minutes, too. That opening number on the highway had me questioning the film immediately. It was a strange way to start, but I give it props for being done in a single shot. In fact, there were a LOT of numbers that were done in single shots, which is another reason I was so impressed with this film.

    1. The audition song is the highpoint of the film and the third act is better than the first two. I'll grant you that.

      In terms of seeing layers, my guess is that it's less age and more focus. I didn't pay close attention to every detail in the film once I'd figured out that it was going to be a rough two hours. Depending on who you ask, neither, one, or both of my kids are millennials, so it's not like I'm completely ignorant of the problems the generation is experiencing.

      The other thing is this, and please don't take this the wrong way, but in a lot of ways, the Millennial generation is no different from every other generation, save that as a collective, they've gotten to the "you just don't understand us" part later than most. These characters have big dreams and big failures...unlike other generations? You think Gen-X or the Boomers didn't have big dreams and big failures? You think they weren't in many ways exactly like those of your generation?

      C'mon. The generations aren't radically different in all ways. There are a lot of similarities between generations. Yours may have more to deal with in some respects--there are massive economic shifts happening, for instance because a lot of the world's economy seems to be unsustainable--but don't kid yourself that somehow relationship problems or conflicting goals is unique to the Millennials.

    2. Hey, no offense meant! I know every generation goes through similar and/or the same issues. I meant, really, the characters themselves and how they were behaving and reacting. It's been a while since I've seen it, so I can't give specifics. I just remember while watching it and immediately after how I felt connected to it and the characters' plights in a very unique way.

    3. None taken. The point is that I understand their conflicts. I think that as a rule, the Millennials are going through those struggles a little later than the previous generations. That gives a sense of "oh, grow up" from those previous generations that I think is unwarranted, but understandable.

      The point is that I get the struggles and conflicts. They aren't unique to the Millennials even if some of the specifics are.

  2. I went into this one expecting to sing its praises along with everyone else and wonder how in the world it lost Best Picture in the most memorable Oscar gaff of all time; I came out of it only liking it and little more, and indeed if given the choice between rewatching this and Whiplash, I'll choose Whiplash almost every time. I haven't seen Moonlight yet, but for once I actually think I'm going to agree with the Academy's decision, from what I've heard of the latter film. Then again, I'd been hearing that this was the absolute most joyous, uplifting, and raucously entertaining film of 2016, and I ended up pretty much having the same opinion as you, both as a whole and on the individual aspects of the film, so who knows. But yeah, you're not entirely alone with where you ended up on this.

    1. Right--exactly. I was expecting to at least be wowed by the singing and dancing, and I just wasn't.

      As it happens, I didn't like Whiplash much, either. I'm starting to think it's something about Damien Chazelle or his movies or something. There's something I find very unpleasant about his characters--an inability to be flexible or to ease up, perhaps.

      I have yet to see both Moonlight and Fences. Right now, it would be hard for anything to top Arrival for me, but that's for very personal reasons.

    2. Haha... I really liked Whiplash, too!

  3. I loved La La Land, and I do think its one of the all-time best musicals (I have one leg in Boomerland and one leg with Gen X).

    I'll offer a couple of interesting points for discussion: many of the main characters in most of the classic Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly musicals were not all that likable either. Those musicals are (of course) now seen and assessed through the lens of nostalgia. I thought Chazelle did an absolutely remarkable job updating the musical for 2016.

    I do think La La Land was ruined for many people who saw it after it received the initial rush of effusive praise. I saw it in the theatre early in its run, and it was a fantastic experience. Once a film is very widely praised (as this one was) expectations go through the roof, and it's then difficult for any film to live up to a glowing reputation.

    Finally, the ending, that we will not ruin or talk about. It's here for those who want to check it out:


    Just to say brave, magical film-making, the "re-wind" sequence at the end is an all-time standout, AND THAT MUSIC accompanying the sequence is pure magic. The in-the-theatre experience is emotionally stunning.

    1. I will say, even with my just-above-lukewarm response to the film, I was a big fan of the epilogue sequence. I don't know if it made the film worth it as a whole, but it was my favorite part of the whole thing, mostly thanks to my having seen most of the films Chazelle pretty much used as reference material and knowing how important it was to him to get that sequence done and done correctly. Sometimes having a possibly-unhealthy amount of cinema knowledge and experience can pay off. :)

    2. I agree that the third act is the best part of the film, and along with the audition song, the epilogue is the best part of the entire film. I appreciate the nod to An American in Paris here as well as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, just to name a few.

      I'll take a little issue with the idea that the Astaire/Rogers movies featured unlikable characters. There was a sweetness to those movies, a wide-eyed look at the world that La La Land didn't have. Additionally, those movies starred actors who were instantly likable in general. You see Fred Astaire, you like the character before he opens his mouth. Astaire had that quality to make even a rogue the guy you rooted for. Ryan Gosling is a damn fine actor, but he's not that guy, and neither in Emma Stone.

      By the way, in terms of age, my guess is that you and I are within a year or two of each other, Ace. I'm early Gen-X.

    3. You are right on the money with Fred Astaire's likability, because it wasn't until Holiday Inn that I realized he could act besides dance as he was a real cad who somehow made me root for Bing to end up with Marjorie Reynolds. This was the only film of Fred's that made me feel that way. And even with the massive age difference in "Daddy Long Legs," I still liked Fred's pursuit of Leslie Caron, while sometimes it seems that Gosling goes out of his way to make it hard for you to like him in many of his films and TV shows.

    4. The same is true of Kelly. Kelly was always just a talented dancer to me until I made the connection that he's also the smarmy, egotistical journalist in Inherit the Wind.

      There are actors who are immediately likable. Henry Fonda had that quality. So did Bing Crosby. Tom Hanks has it. It's why it can be so effective when an actor like that plays a true villain (Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, for instance). Even playing out of character--Bing Crosby in The Country Girl--is effective because we so naturally like the actor. Gosling, as good as he is, isn't that guy, and that's what La La Land needed.

      One of my favorite Fred Astaire movie moments was seeing him straight-up shank a dude in Ghost Story. When that happens, the reaction is less "Oh my God! Fred Astaire just stabbed a guy!" and more "You go, Fred!" Why? Because we like Fred Astaire characters as if we've been programmed to like them.

  4. I’m afraid I’m going to go on a bit of a rant here. I’ve said before that I love musicals but I have to amend that. I love book musicals that may require some suspension of belief but make you feel for the characters, whether the subject matter is fluffy and light or serious and heavy. I also love dramas or comedies that aren’t musicals per se but feature musical numbers in a performative setting, ala Love Me or Leave Me. But most importantly I love musicals starring people who can SING! And if they can’t dub them with someone who can!

    I don’t expect every musical star to be Judy Garland, Gene Kelly or Doris Day, they are rare birds, but I want at least someone at the level of Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow-not a “professional” singer but someone who can carry a damn tune and has the projection to put a song across!

    The studios used to have more sense, Gordon MacRae and Bing Crosby could sing so they were cast appropriately in the genre…Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart could not so aside from one studio mandated appearance for a just starting out Jimmy they were smart enough to stay away. Are Stone and Gosling talented? Absolutely but not in the vital aspect that this picture needs. They give good performances (not Oscar worthy but good) but there HAD to be performers with equivalent skill who could sing and dance! People will say “Oh but they’re stretching!” Let them take an aerobics class then!! Why should I as a paying customer be subjected to their (unsuccessful) voice lessons and for the most part glue-footed attempts at dance?

    To finish my original thought I hate musicals like Les Miserables where EVERYTHING is sung so it becomes a deadening slog to the finish line or movies like this one with persons of meager melodious talent playing characters who are mostly unlikable-fatal for a musical where you have to want to follow the protagonists through their flight of fancy.

    It’s a beautiful, eye filling package to be sure but it’s an empty one. The only really positive thing I can say for it aside from the look is that I didn’t hate it as I did Moonlight but only felt indifference.

    1. And here I thought I was a little harsh.

      What I'm happier about is the fact that I'm not alone in thinking that Gosling can't sing or dance. Stone is a little better in that respect, at least in terms of singing. She has a decent voice, but it's so mousy for so much of the movie.

      Your point on them "stretching" is well-taken as well. As someone watching the movie, it's impressive to know that Ryan Gosling practiced the piano several hours a day, six days every week for months to learn how to play for this role. And at the same time, a part of me doesn't care. All I want is for it to look good on the screen.

      And finally, yes--unlikable characters can work, but in a musical, that's a real problem. We have to like the characters to put up with the nonsense of the musical genre.

    2. I like Emma Stone a great deal and as mediocre, undistinguished voices go hers is better than Gosling so it would be fine for a one spot slot in a film, like Carey Mulligan's raw performance was in Shame, but to be the lead in a musical it's woeful. Marilyn Monroe wasn't a GREAT singer but her voice was distinctive and strong enough to work in musicals and to make you believe people would hire her for the jobs she supposedly had in her films. That's all I ask.

    3. I don't mind Stone's voice in general, although she'll never make it as a singer. That's fine, whatever. I can live with it. But it seemed to me multiple times in the watching that Ryan Gosling really can't sing. In that respect, he's really mis-cast. I'd rather see someone who is more famous as a singer be given a chance to act at that point.

    4. I wouldn't have minded seeing a professional singer in Ryan Gosling's role provided he could act as well as Gosling. But hell Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Pine, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bobby Magnusson to name a few can all actually sing at a professional level and the last three have shown themselves good dancers in other films or appearances, all are excellent actors and they are all more or less in the same age bracket as Gosling...so again I have to ask why?

    5. I can't argue with any of that.

  5. I don't have as much to say as those above. :-)

    I enjoyed it, but not as much as most. I too had some problems with the characters' likability, especially Gosling's. And the story was a little rote Hollywood. But I enjoyed a lot of the song and dance and I especially liked the opening traffic jam number. It's that kind of combination of artistic filming and singing and choreography that really makes me appreciate how talented human beings can be.

    1. There are definitely some very good points here. The direction and the production design are as good as you'll find, and the choreography is a part of that.

      But I can't imagine wanting to watch this again any time soon.

  6. I loved this, but I do appreciate other's frustrations with it. The singing and dancing is definitely not the strongest parts of the film (though Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were not strong singers). I do love the actual score, though, so did purchase the soundtrack.

    I watched this before the hype (and may even have contributed that!), and loved how romantic and beautiful it was to look at; the planitarium scene is gorgeous.

    You may not be in such a small minority as you think; some people even wrote into newspaper in Australia saying how much they HATED it. I also know several people who really disliked it too.

    1. While it's true that neither Kelly nor Astaire would make it as a singer specifically, they could sing, and Gosling really can't. He sounded flat to me in every scene he sang in. Worse, he sounded tentative, like he wasn't really sure he should be singing.

      In terms of the look of the film, I agree. It is gorgeous to look at and I won't take that away from it.

      With being in the minority, I'm basing that more on Letterboxd than anything else. On that site, La La Land has nearly 50,000 4-5 star reviews and fewer than 5,000 reviews below 3 stars.

  7. I saw it with my niece, who had been making a big deal about La La Land for several weeks. Knowing her tastes I assumed it was anime.

    And then I heard it was nominated for a bunch of Oscars. So probably not anime.

    So I took my niece. She had seen it but she was very happy to see it again. I think we were less than a minute into it when I whispered to her "I love this movie!"

    So, yeah, I was really drawn in by the very strong numbers in the beginning. I saw it again a few weeks later, and I eventually marked it as my favorite movie of 2016 on my IMDB Year-by-Year list.

    I'm not the biggest fan of the musical genre but I know a good one when I see it.

    1. We'll disagree on that. I realize that nationwide I'm in the minority on this, but so far on this blog, people have tended to agree with my disappointment.