Film Review: LA LA LAND (written and directed by Damien Chazelle)

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by Jesse David Corti on December 9, 2016

in Film


In some ways, La La Land promises to be a moving, old-fashioned romantic musical that plays around with old techniques and presents them in a vibrant, zestful fashion. But some well-staged numbers and appealing actors don’t quite make up for forgettable songs, constrained storytelling, and two leads who aren’t terrific singers and dancers. For some, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s saturated Technicolor picture may be a mashup of meta and millennial escapism; I found it pallid entertainment in place of dramatic thrust. Based on its amazing festival circuit reception and talk of Oscars, it’s also an example of a considerable drop in movie musical standards from MGM’s heydays.


The central characters are dreamers Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), both trying to make it in Hollywood. Mia wants to act, while jazz purist/pianist Sebastian desires to own a club where he can play “real” jazz music. Will new romance hold and dreams come true? Or will they both find something better than what they thought they wanted?


In the first 20 minutes of this film, you get two gangbuster ensemble numbers. The first is “Another Day of Sun”, a single-take wonder of 100 performers that impresses thanks to Linus Sandgren’s swift cinematography and Mandy Moore’s choreography. The voice levels pale in volume next to the jazz band orchestra, but it’s thrilling to witness authentic dancers and singers getting out of their gridlocked cars in that clear-skied, sun-soaked L.A. highway traffic. It’s musical comedy heaven to see a romantic celebration set in the middle of an otherwise hateful routine.


The second group song is “Someone in a Crowd”, which centers on Mia’s equally struggling actress roommates Caitlin (Sonaya Mizuno), Alexis (Jessica Rothe), and Tracy (Callie Hernandez) who try to cheer up Mia after a hard day. It jocularly articulates the desire to make it in the business by meeting the right person at the swanky party they’re attending. The zig-zagging camerawork is reminiscent of Robert Elswit’s in Boogie Nights, another love letter (sort of) to L.A. and the art it’s known for.


In contrast to these upbeat, romantic-about-their-otherwise-resentful-subject songs is “City of Stars”, a flutter of a ballad that–while derivative of Michel Legrand’s “I Will Wait for You”–is a wistful, melancholy piece; a plaintive plea to be recognized and embraced. As is usually the case with musical comedies, the songs don’t move plot forward. But that’s harder to forgive here because the tunes are rather unmemorable (music by Justin Hurwitz, lyrics by Broadway’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul–known as Pasek and Paul).


Gosling’s singing, like his dancing, isn’t great, a kind of stark pitchy whispering. But he can play the piano, and does so quite well and often. Co-star Stone can’t match the awesome prowess of Mizuno, Rothe, and Hernandez’s qualities. She’s a tiny bit better than Gosling in the dancing department, but she sings as strongly as a well-rehearsed karaoke bar crooner (which made her a perfect choice for the dubious Kit Kat Klub singer Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway). She does have some well-executed audition scenes that thankfully don’t involve singing. These charismatic stars are odd choices given that all but one of the songs after the first twenty minutes are assigned to their characters.


The romantic tone and screwball relationship between the leads is subverted in service of keeping a step ahead of the audience, no matter how structurally inorganic or utterly forced the circumstances or character motivations are. One of the worst examples is Sebastian’s selective memory. A man who fastidiously memorizes facts about Charlie Parker and learns songs off an old vinyl LP by ear can’t remember the night when his girlfriend’s passion project production opens. Characters regress into caricatures and Chazelle runs out of creative ways to develop his half-baked story, one that is riddled with clichés and resolves with a baffling, tone-deaf conclusion.

Ryan Gosling and John Legend in La La Land (2016)

What’s amusing about old movie musicals is how the lead performers are triple threats (equally great at acting, singing, and dancing) but they struggle to make it either as an entertainer or a love interest. Here is a film where the leads don’t sing great or even dance basic choreography adequately, but their characters’ prospects look more and more attainable as the film plays on. This is a tremendous obstacle because it undercuts the story about how tough it is to make it in Hollywood.


In this follow-up to his Oscar-nominated 2014 Whiplash, Chazelle attempts to make a love letter to Hollywood that is grounded in the realities of Los Angeles life through an original jazz musical. In doing so, he pays tribute to touchstones of the genre: Dreamers struggling to do their respective thing in Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain; the colors, lighting, and sweeping camerawork of Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris, and the melodramatic tone and ballads of Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Had La La Land worked at the level of these films, it would have redeemed other ill-fated attempts at the genre, including Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, which had Cole Porter songs live-sung by stars who couldn’t sing, and James L. Brooks’s I’ll Do Anything, which actually had its musical numbers completely excised for the picture’s release. 

Chazelle’s ambivalently nostalgic and arbitrarily cynical La La Land has an exciting start, but it falls hard quickly and doesn’t recover.

photos © Summit Entertainment

La La Land
Imposter Pictures / Gilbert Films
distributed by Summit Entertainment 

in wide release December 9, 2016
for more info, visit La La Land

{ 1 comment }

Maura Nolan April 5, 2017 at 9:21 am

I couldn’t agree more, Jesse!

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