La La Land is a lovely and colorful tribute to old classic Hollywood musicals, even though it doesn’t have what it takes to be just as memorable

La La Land (film)

La La Land (2016)

Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Damien Chazelle. Star­ring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Leg­end, Rose­marie De­Witt, Finn Wit­trock, J. K. Sim­mons and Tom Everett Scott.

La La Land is such an easy movie to fall in love with. Just take a look at how col­or­ful, adorable and un­abashed­ly ro­man­tic it is in its at­tempt to re­cap­ture the old “mag­ic” of Hollywood’s Gold­en Age mu­si­cals (which it clear­ly be­lieves to be gone from mod­ern films). Deal­ing with feel­ings that we can all re­late to, the film daz­zles us with gor­geous vi­su­als and love­ly songs that will prob­a­bly leave a lot of us hum­ming for hours af­ter it is over. Even so, it is a pity that it is not as con­sis­tent as the clas­sics it pays trib­ute to, nor as mem­o­rable. In fact, La La Land doesn’t even come close, and the com­par­i­son (giv­en the film’s own na­ture) is un­for­tu­nate­ly in­evitable. But we only re­al­ize how flawed it re­al­ly is af­ter we have left the theaters.

Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), La La Land fol­lows as­pir­ing ac­tress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz mu­si­cian Se­bas­t­ian (Ryan Gosling), who fall in love in mod­ern day Los An­ge­les while try­ing to pur­sue their dreams. Both love the Hol­ly­wood of old times (Mia even has a large poster of In­grid Bergman on her wall) and are frus­trat­ed with how hard it is to make it in the City of Stars. But this is ex­act­ly what mu­si­cals used to do and what La La Land wants: to make the im­pos­si­ble pos­si­ble, us­ing a lot of mag­ic and op­ti­mism. And so, this sweet love sto­ry turns out to be a bit more than an ex­cuse for the film to amaze us with de­light­ful mu­si­cal num­bers about dreams and how they can come true if we tru­ly be­lieve that.

Pre­sent­ed in Cin­e­maS­cope with a 2.55:1 as­pect ra­tio and shot on film in­stead of dig­i­tal cam­eras in or­der to evoke the gen­uine feel of watch­ing old Hol­ly­wood mu­si­cals, La La Land looks mag­i­cal. The open­ing se­quence, for in­stance, is an elab­o­rate en­sem­ble num­ber that takes place in the mid­dle of a traf­fic jam on a Los An­ge­les high­way, made of three shots that were edit­ed to look like a sin­gle six-minute long take. The cam­era slides im­pres­sive­ly through nu­mer­ous cars and dri­vers as they get out of their ve­hi­cles and start to sing and dance about their as­pi­ra­tions in Hol­ly­wood with a jaw-drop­ping chore­og­ra­phy. It is a fan­tas­tic over­ture in­volv­ing 60 cars, 30 dancers and 100 ex­tras, and it tells us right away what the film is about.

Us­ing in­tense col­ors and long takes in the mu­si­cal num­bers, Chazelle and cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er Li­nus Sand­gren make it all look like a so­phis­ti­cat­ed, mod­ern fa­ble. The mo­ment when Mia and Se­bas­t­ian sing and tap dance at dusk, for ex­am­ple, is like some­thing out of a dream with its charm­ing lamp­posts and a pur­ple and blue Los An­ge­les sky as the back­drop. The pro­duc­tion and cos­tume de­sign also use most­ly sat­u­rat­ed ba­sic col­ors, with Mia wear­ing a ca­nary yel­low dress in that scene, while in a pre­vi­ous one, her friends ap­pear in dif­fer­ent vi­brant col­ors (red, yel­low and green) that com­ple­ment her blue dress. No­tice also how Mia stands right in­side a red neon square frame the first time she hears Se­bas­t­ian play­ing the pi­ano in the bar, which of­fers an el­e­gant il­lus­tra­tion of the way she feels about her own life.

Emma Stone, by the way, does a fine job com­pos­ing this char­ac­ter full of hopes and dreams. Tired of go­ing to au­di­tions and more au­di­tions that lead nowhere, Mia is an au­then­tic dream­er who al­ready feels the weight of frus­tra­tion sink­ing in. And Stone has an ex­cel­lent chem­istry with Ryan Gosling, with whom she even co-starred in two oth­er movies be­fore (Crazy, Stu­pid, Love and Gang­ster Squad). Gosling, in turn, is great as the cyn­i­cal Se­bas­t­ian, an ob­vi­ous al­ter-ego of Chazelle with a purist view of what “real” mu­sic is. He dri­ves a vin­tage car, wears clas­sic clothes and is clear­ly voic­ing Chazelle’s opin­ions when he crit­i­cizes the ar­ti­fi­cial­i­ty of mod­ern mu­sic and wants to teach Mia about the won­ders of jazz.

This brings us to one of the film’s most glar­ing prob­lems: no mat­ter how well-in­ten­tioned and pas­sion­ate Chazelle is about the old days of Hol­ly­wood, he sounds some­what pre­ten­tious and ar­ro­gant. I mean, who is he to de­cide what mu­sic and cin­e­ma are sup­posed to be? Be­sides, La La Land is old-fash­ioned even in the way it places white peo­ple at the cen­ter of every­thing, ig­nor­ing the fact that jazz orig­i­nat­ed among African Amer­i­cans. See­ing a white man like Se­bas­t­ian talk about his mis­sion of “sav­ing” jazz while black men are kept out of fo­cus play­ing in the back­ground is a bit out­ra­geous. Not to men­tion how Mia hates jazz and Se­bas­t­ian is, of course, the one to con­vince her she should like it.

Full of ref­er­ences and with a struc­ture di­vid­ed in sea­sons to re­flect the char­ac­ters’ feel­ings and their re­la­tion­ship, La La Land is more like a sal­ad of clichés, and they in­clude the “cou­ple who hate each oth­er only to find out that they are in love;” a first kiss that gets in­ter­rupt­ed; and, of course, an im­por­tant com­mit­ment that comes up for one in the most im­por­tant day of the other’s life. The film is also far from be­ing as wit­ty as it be­lieves to be (the di­a­logue can be quite pedes­tri­an) and just seems tai­lor-made to win awards. In oth­er mo­ments, though, the clichés are ap­pro­pri­ate, like when we see a closed down cin­e­ma, a vinyl record that stops play­ing or a mag­i­cal scene with the two float­ing over clouds at a planetarium.

But Chazelle com­pen­sates for the script’s ob­vi­ous weak­ness­es with a splen­did di­rec­tion. Take, for in­stance, the mo­ment when Mia is with her boyfriend Greg and his friends at a restau­rant. We bare­ly see Greg’s face, and the scene is shot in shal­low fo­cus, keep­ing only Mia en­tire­ly vis­i­ble and un­der­scor­ing her men­tal ab­sence from that which is one of the dullest con­ver­sa­tions of her life. Like­wise, when au­di­tion­ing, she is framed in close-ups while every­thing else is blurred, which re­in­forces how ner­vous she is and the lack of warmth from the peo­ple who are there to eval­u­ate her. And in a quick ref­er­ence, Chazelle even makes the names of bars, clubs and restau­rants pop up in rapid suc­ces­sion on the screen just like in Sin­gin’ in the Rain (1952).

Where­as most of the songs in La La Land are far from mem­o­rable, it is in­ter­est­ing to see how Chazelle com­bines the aes­thet­ics of old clas­sic films with a mod­ern ap­proach — and Tom Cross’ fan­tas­tic edit­ing is full of el­e­gant dis­solves to in­di­cate time el­lipses as well as mod­ern fast cuts and quick in­serts. Of­fer­ing us a beau­ti­ful fi­nal se­quence con­ceived to draw tears from every­one in the au­di­ence, La La Land is ba­si­cal­ly a con­ven­tion­al hodge­podge that wants to be the mu­si­cal of mu­si­cals, aim­ing at the sta­tus of so­phis­ti­cat­ed when in fact it is nowhere near as re­mark­able as the films it ref­er­ences. But at least it is de­light­ful enough to be worth our time.


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