Gene Kelly Land
Sometimes you got to appreciate a film for doing something not many other people are doing, or doing something that has long since died. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, musical films were everywhere with energetic singing, silly plot lines that didn’t take itself too seriously, and dance choreography that took itself very seriously. Most notably, these musicals relied on various genres of music, but jazz was a particular favorite of the time. And so we have La La Land, a throwback to the 1950’s era of classic Hollywood, otherwise known as hardcore pornography for Academy Award voters.
Our film centers on the couple of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), an traditional jazz musician and an aspiring actress respectively. The pair keep running into each other despite their very different life tracks and end up falling in love. However, Sebastian now feels pressure to take high paying music gigs that take jazz into directions he doesn’t want it go, but he wants to realize his dream of owning and running a jazz joint. Meanwhile, Mia feels nervous about pursuing her creative side while becoming increasingly distraught about her future as an actress in Hollywood. Will their troubles tear them apart? Does the Pope shit in the woods? Actually, not sure what his Holiness does on his personal time, but maybe he would like to listen to some decent tunes and watch some great dance moves.
The technical aspects of this film are simply amazing. Take any odd musical like Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris, or The King and I and jack the color, lighting, and special effects up to 11 to get an idea of what this film is going for. The visuals, the dance choreography, and the sets all benefit from the wonders of modern technology to give you something that feels like those classics I mentioned, but offers you brand new music, dances and characters that you want to follow.
Speaking of which, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have a ridiculous amount of chemistry together here. I mean this is only the third time they’ve starred opposite each other (previously headlining Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad), so it shouldn’t come across as a surprise that they work well together but it’s still nice to appreciate good rhythm between two thespians when you see it. Their romance actually feels somewhat realistic and frustrating rarely without falling into the same pitfalls that doomed countless romcoms (i.e. miscommunication over stupid ass shit). The couple fights on different occasions in the film, but they feel like a natural progression rather than the result of contrivance, and the resolution feels genuine without coming across as fake or melodramatic. They make sure to have the subtle differences that some romances can do very well (like Love and Other Drugs and Blue is the Warmest Color) and have none of the qualities that make romances tortured and stupid (like Love Actually…yes it sucks, and yes I’m taking the time of another review to diss it because I will not be silenced).
Anywho, let’s get back to the technical aspects. The set design is an interesting direction as it relies on plenty of real world locales in addition to obviously staged scenes. This might not seem like a big deal, but remember that the old musicals from back in the day relied heavily on very fake looking sets even when the script required the actors to be outside. It was a weird facade to overcome that severely aged several of these films, but many of them either didn’t know how or simply couldn’t film their sequences in outdoor lots without sacrificing sound quality. But in our age of sound mixing and small microphones, these worries are a thing of the past allowing La La Land to open the film up with a pretty impressive single shot, three minute song and dance number along the Los Angeles Freeway. It’s grand, it’s silly, but it’s no doubt impressive to witness as one screw up would basically mean that everyone would start again from the top.
That being said, as impressive as the opening number was, none of the other dance sequences manage to top that introduction until the very end. But the other sequences do benefit from small, well earned character moments and beautiful backdrops incorporating digital special effects to manipulate appearances and gravity itself. It all comes together to form a unique experience that blows previously loved live-action musicals like Moulin Rouge and Chicago out of the water, and I can safely say that I enjoyed La La Land than either of those movies. For one, the plot and characters were infinitely more relatable and charming; and secondly, the musical numbers feel more resonant to the situation at hand. But as much as I really appreciate this movie, there’s a little something that’s holding me back from loving it…
Put down your cleavers and pitchforks people, I don’t dislike this film at all. Actually, I like it a whole lot, but I’m not 100% in love with this film. La La Land still stands head and shoulders above even my most well liked films that I awarded FULL PRICE ratings, but the movie doesn’t reach the highs I’m reserving for fare like The Handmaiden and Hell or High Water. Now why is that? We have to go deeper children to figure it out.
At a base level, I only enjoyed the music rather than adored it. Take Moana and Sing Street, for instance; I downloaded the soundtracks of both films the day after seeing each film and continuously play the music a month later. After two days from seeing La La Land, I can’t recall a single tune off the top of my head. The score is jam packed with solid jazz, so it’s possible I just don’t gravitate towards it as I do for other genres of music. It may also be due to the score relying primarily on a motif introduced earlier on by Ryan Gosling’s character that gets repeated a dozen or so times that it’s practically bored a hole straight into my cranium that I can’t look at any sort of instrument without immediately humming the beginning rhythm. But as memorable as the melody is…I can’t recall the actual song.
Keep in mind, this isn’t the fault of either Stone or Gosling who do very well with the material they’re given. Although it was obvious to me that neither thespian have broad vocal ranges, they still were able to perform well with their respective talents while also having to pull double duty as dancers as well. Much of what makes the duo work as on screen couple singing and dancing all the way through is through the efforts of Damien Chazelle, director of one of my favorite films of 2014, Whiplash. Incidentally, I found out that this movie was the project he wanted to work on first, but ended up directing Whiplash instead to prove himself. And Chazelle, who’s only 31-years-old (Christ that’s gonna hurt a lot of egos), has a flair for the over-the-top like his contemporary Baz Luhrman; but unlike the legendary director for theater nerds, Chazelle knows how to tell a competent story while making sure his actors know exactly where they’re going. And yes, unlike Luhrman, Chazelle understands what the definition of “charming” is and it’s not having quirky characters run around looking ridiculous.
It’s about having deeply flawed characters express themselves in creative ways to form some kind of connection with who they feel is a kindred spirit. It’s about showing tenderness in every action they take. It’s about showing pain when things don’t go their way. And it’s ultimately recognizing and living with regret.
Incidentally, this is where La La Land truly shines in its impressive final number. All of the film’s themes and central message come back full circle. Not in some half-assed twist sort-of-way like some miserable pieces of shit, but in a way that let’s your mind wander about possibilities with characters you’ve learned to give a shit about and gorgeous backdrops infused with color and wonderful sounds. The final ten minutes are worth the price of admission alone, but it’s pretty much inseparable from the rest of the movie that did its best to reinforce every idea the filmmakers wanted to convey.
But as wonderful as so much of this movie is, I still have a few niggling doubts that hold it back from “absolutely best of the year.” John Legend shows up, yes THAT John Legend, in a plot line involving Gosling’s character about the “future” of jazz. Now between this film and Whiplash, it’s obvious to me that the genre of music has a special place in Chazelle’s heart, but he seems to be confused as to where he wants the genre to go. Both Gosling and Legend lament that the art is dying; but whereas Gosling wants to save it through low-key clubs, Legend wants to incorporate the “benefits” of pop music (i.e. synthesizers and auto-tune) to propel the genre forward. And while their debate is fascinating from an artistic perspective…it’s introduced nearly 60% into the film and is dropped completely in the last quarter of the film. It felt like a subplot without a proper resolution and ultimately doesn’t come to a strong conclusion in either Gosling or Legend’s favor.
The first quarter of the film also felt oddly paced to me as well, not enough to be a deal breaker though (I mean I forgave the slowburn of the introduction in Rogue One), but it seems at odds with the first five minutes of the film and the actual meat of the movie with Gosling and Stone’s courtship. Granted it’s only a 20 minute portion that I personally felt could be shortened, but it would be done at great difficulty to the director and editors, so I’m not going to hold that against them.
Critiques aside, this a well made movie that deserves a lot of the praise it’s been receiving. I’d still rank at least seven other movies above it, but it may yet find its way into my top ten. Check this one out and go ahead to pay…