Year of Release: 2016 Directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
I like musicals. Actually, that’s not true. I love musicals. My top ten favorite films list includes Singin’ in the Rain, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Sweeney Todd, all of which I have seen more times than I can count. When Criterion released a box set of the complete Jacques Demy films, I purchased it as soon as I could. I enjoy and have defended the artistry of Rob Marshall’s adaptations of Chicago and Into the Woods (his adaptation of Nine, however, is indefensible). I own the complete vocal scores for seven musicals and the vocal selections for countless others. I think Love Me Tonight and All That Jazz are both astonishing works of cinema as well as great musicals, and I routinely encourage everyone to watch the former (the latter being too graphic for a general endorsement). John Carney’s Once and Begin Again both made my top ten for their respective years, and Sing Street stands a decent chance of making my top ten this year. In middle school and high school I wrote two musicals, each over two hours in length (I wrote score, lyrics, and libretto – the musicals were not good, but it’s a testament to how much I love the art form). All that is to say: few things fill me with as much joy as a well made musical, and few things pain me as much as a musical gone wrong.
Naturally, when I heard about La La Land, I was ecstatic. An original musical produced on a lavish scale with extravagant set pieces and vibrant colors is something I am hard wired to love. I instantly caught the Jacques Demy influence in the trailer; Chazelle had proven his directorial chops with Whiplash, a film I respect even though I don’t particularly enjoy it, so I thought his skill would lead to a triumph here. The early raves were all encouraging, and even though the few naysayers convinced me to restrain my expectations, I was still convinced I was going to love La La Land.
I really, really didn’t.
From the first scene, the film failed to transport me the way that a good musical should. The opening set piece during rush hour on the LA freeway is extravagantly staged, fun to watch, and “Another Day of Sun” is an infectious tune that should bring a smile out of anyone, but the film’s focus during what should be a stunning production number is on Chazelle and his bag of directorial tricks. The entire sequence is filmed in one long take, and consequently, the focus is rarely on the dancers but on the camera and the odd positions it must adopt to move from performer to performer. During that number, I was frequently saying to myself, “Cut to a long distance shot so we can see the whole ensemble, or at least zoom out,” followed by, “Don’t violently whir the camera from person to person, cut to them, and time the cuts to match the musical phrases.” There were a few moments in the number when the music and the dance overcame the technical distractions, and the film briefly soared as it was meant to, but sadly, not for the entire scene.
In a nutshell, that is La La Land’s biggest problem. For every wonderful breathtaking moment of inspiring beauty (and there are a lot), there are one or two moments of clunky technical distractions grounding the film to earth.
After the opening set piece, a title card tells us the first segment is titled, “Winter.” We meet Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress and writer who works as a barista to pay the bills, and then Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist with a strong rebellious streak. The segment is bookended by their two rough first meetings. Unfortunately, we don’t learn much about them beyond their occupations and basic personalities. Neither one gets a song to describe their motivations for their dreams, and we are not given any reason that they should be together beyond this is a musical, and that’s traditionally what happens in a musical.
The next segment, “Spring,” is probably the best in the film, and the main reason for that is “A Lovely Night,” the meet cute song and dance for Mia and Sebastian. Gosling and Stone’s dancing is impressive and the framing against the LA sunset works beautifully. It’s the only moment in the film where everything comes together perfectly, due to the stars’ execution and to Chazelle allowing the camera to pull back and observe without intruding. Stone and Gosling’s chemistry is also at its best as their attitudes toward one another change from disdainful to reticent admiration.
“Summer” and “Fall” trace the standard trajectory of a musical romance, and Mia and Sebastian encourage one another to pursue their dreams. The film goes through the expected ups and downs, and it always stays watchable, but it never becomes transcendent.
As good as Stone and Gosling are (and they’re really good), there’s only so much they can do with two characters who are a compilation of every musical cliché. I am aware many great musicals have thinly sketched characters, but all of those musicals have something other than spectacular set pieces to drive the story forward. For instance, Seymour and Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors have little personality beyond their massive lack of self esteem, but that plays directly into the villain’s manipulation which drives the story. The supporting characters in Company have little stage time, but they all have crucial song lyrics that make their characters more unique than Mia or Sebastian are here. The guy and girl in Once don’t even receive names, yet their songs develop their characters much more than the song lyrics or dance sequences in La La Land. (To be fair, “The Fools Who Dream” is a great song which adds a lot of depth to Mia’s character, but that’s undermined by the following scene.)
The most damning flaw throughout the majority of the film is Chazelle’s obnoxious desire to film all songs in one take. The result of such a choice is that he often has to move or position the camera awkwardly, dragging it along walls and missing moments of choreography. Personally, I’m blaming Tom Hooper for doing that in Les Miserables and Alejandro Iñarritu for convincing everyone that long takes are good in of themselves with Birdman.
However, the ending undoes any goodwill I was inclined to give the film. Admittedly, Justin Hurwitz’ score is excellent, Mandy Moore’s choreography is stunning, and the production design is gorgeous. None of that makes up for the sloppy, ham-fisted copying of vastly superior musical. To avoid spoilers I won’t say what musical (although I mentioned it in this review), but after La La Land reaches the conclusion of its story, Chazelle adds a gratuitous coda which has an identical outcome to the ending of said musical. The most offensive aspect is the way in which Chazelle tacks on the coda without setting it up and without the nuance or poignancy it has in the original film. If I hadn’t see that musical, I might not have minded La La Land concluding the same way it does, and I might have found La La Land’s conclusion bittersweet and touching. However, I’ve seen that vastly superior musical countless times, and I’m thinking about watching it right now, so La La Land’s coda struck me as borderline plagiarism.
Also, speaking of distracting copying of other musicals, one of the jazz set pieces used a theme copied directly from another great musical from the same director who made the musical referenced above. Finally, if the poorly copied coda weren’t enough, in the middle of it Chazelle inserts a dream sequence with references to every major musical which influenced La La Land. It’s redundant and only serves to drag out the ending as it screams out how self-aware it is.
Just like The Artist was a silent film for people who had never seen a silent film, La La Land is basically a musical for people who don’t particularly care for musicals. If you want to see La La Land, I’m not going to discourage you, but do yourself a favor and watch several Jacques Demy musicals first, most importantly The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, both of which soar head and heels over this film, and neither of which this film would exist without.
Personal Recommendation: C+
Content Advisory: An instance of profanity, implied premarital cohabitation, and a couple strong vulgarities. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested audience: Teens and up