The buzz surrounding La La Land is overwhelming. Every single musical theatre kid I know (who incidentally all seem to harbour an undying love for Stone and Gosling) have posted about La La Land on facebook. The very premise of the film is so self-indulgent it’s ridiculous (almost as self-indulgent as this blog): it’s a piece of novelty cinema – a movie musical – starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. In case you couldn’t tell: I’m a massive dick and was pretty dismissive of the hype. So instead of bitching about it, I decided to judge the film for myself. For me, the basic question I always want answered in a movie review is: was the film worth it? I’ll spare you all my vacuous thoughts and get to the point. La La Land was a nice film. I can’t bring myself to say it was a concept worth bringing to life, but it was nice nonetheless.
Los Angeles is a city of great hope and great demise. In it live two aspiring creatives – Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling). When Mia isn’t auditioning for parts, she works as a barista on the Warner Brothers’ lot. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who just can’t bring himself to mindlessly play Christmas tunes in local bars, but dreams of opening an authentic jazz club. Equal parts cynical and naïve, the two fall in love and attempt to navigate their fledgling careers as best they can.
La La Land gets off to a shaky start. Well, not literally, because the first musical number was one of the best in the film – a colourful, diverse showcase set in the midst of L.A. traffic. (I actually found myself smiling during this sequence, but also knew it was too good to be true because La La Land stars two, well established but under qualified, white people. It doesn’t get more diverse than that.) Once the film actually starts, you realise that it could’ve done with a little more time in the oven to understand its tone and its characters from the get go. Or maybe stop sacrificing its tone to woo young audiences. I’ll elaborate.
After the opening number, we are greeted by Emma Stone playing an Emma Stone character of yore – you know, the sarcastic, sharp, every-girl audiences love. Ryan Gosling’s character is uncompromising and even unlikeable despite his facial expressions which I am sure were described as “ironic” in the script. Their characters even do the classic “let’s flip the script on this rom-com” thing where they flirt by paying each other out – it could’ve been from Easy A. That is, until they leap into an earnest song and dance complete with a tap routine regrettably performed on asphalt. (As a former tapper I cringed at the scrapes and muffled beats during the number. Why god, why?) I’m not sure if it was director and writer, Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), trying to appeal to The Youth or try edge up his earnest 50s love story, but for me, it fell flat.
Chazelle also failed to effectively modernise his ode to Old Hollywood. The set design, the costumes, a few of the dance numbers – all heavily, heavily inspired by the Golden Era of Hollywood. They even used the good old spotlight-in-a-dim-room-as-the-world-fades-away for almost every musical number. You can’t pretend your film is an original take on the movie musical just because you’ve shoved an iPhone into your character’s hand. This is an issue that extended to Mia’s costume design (by Mary Zophres). I’m no fashion expert, so I’m probably missing something – but people just don’t dress like that anymore. Her clothing wasn’t 50s inspired… it was straight up 50s (except for her work uniform and her final black dress). The entire Old Hollywood angle could have been less heavy handed. Or, better yet, just present La La Land as an Old Hollywood film instead of diluting what makes the film fundamentally charming at its core.
However, La La Land‘s biggest failure is the resounding fact that it was a musical that was simply better without its songs. A good chunk of the numbers felt gratuitous, and the ones that didn’t were out of sync, tone-wise, with the rest of the film. This is a musical that gets by because of its enchanting love story. In fact, the story was a vehicle for the musical, when it should be the other way around. The music should carry the plot as though singing and dancing were a seamless element of the journey. I felt this aspect really threw Stone under the bus as she tries to ham it up for a number of musical theatre numbers, meanwhile Gosling gets by because he just gets to be pensive and nostalgic in his. The only incorporation of music that felt right for this movie was the extended fairy tale sequences and the jazz, despite how cringey it was to watch the thoroughly white and clueless Emma Stone jive in a jazz club, with the also white Ryan Gosling on the keys.
After four paragraphs of me pummelling La La Land, you would be surprised to know that I didn’t hate it. The movie was actually very enjoyable when it stuck to its roots – a romantic throwback to the 50s, the story of two dreamers stuck in reality. Despite its rocky start, La La Land developed into quite a gorgeous love story set in dingy apartments with colourful lights. Although that does sound like nearly every indie flick…ever, Stone and Gosling carried it well, in yet another on screen collaboration between the two. But Stone and Gosling are not Rogers and Astaire with iPhones.
La La Land is at its best when it sticks to the love story at its heart. Make no mistake – movie musicals are not back. This was just a well told story that carried a novelty in its wake. If you’re feeling self indulgent and need a break from the world, I would say La La Land provides quite a nice reprieve.
La La Land (2016): 8/10