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

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 be­come true if we tru­ly be­lieve that.

Pre­sent­ed in Cin­e­maS­cope with a 2.55:1 as­pect ra­tio and shot in 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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