La La Land (2016 Summit Entertainment)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt.
Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Producers: Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, Gary Gilbert, Marc Platt
Cinematography by Linus Sandgren. Edited by Tom Cross.
The story of Mia, an aspiring actress, and Sebastian, a dedicated jazz musician, struggling to make ends meet while pursuing their dreams in a city known for destroying hopes and breaking hearts. With modern day Los Angeles as the backdrop, this musical about everyday life explores what is more important: a once-in-a-lifetime love or the spotlight.
This is from the same guy who wrote and directed Whiplash? Seriously?!?! Everything Whiplash was—dark, intense, mentally exhausting—La La Land ain’t. Yes, it’s the story of Mia and Sebastian, but the real story is it’s a throwback to the mid-20th century heyday of big-time Hollywood musicals. Well, for the first half of the movie, at least.
I’ll be honest, I found myself tapping my watch throughout the first 60 minutes or so of La La Land. It felt cheesy, gimmicky and like it was trying too hard to be an old movie. Instead of paying homage to the Busby Berkeley era, it got a little too homage-y there for awhile, if you ask me. Sure, the backdrop of vintage Los Angeles landmarks and scenery were visually satisfying and harkened to movies of days gone by, but it seemed forced, at times.
The musical numbers were quaint and kinda fun, but watching two great actors in Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling soft-shoe their way through a couple of these numbers was a bit like pounding a square peg into a round hole. Fun? Sure. Emotional depth? Well…
That didn’t come until the second half of the film, when writer/director Damien Chazelle focused less on the gimmick of a big, ensemble song-and-dance routine and more on the burgeoning relationship between our protagonists, Mia and Sebastian. Both were interesting characters with big, Hollywood dreams of their own that seemed at odds with their relationship.
At its heart, this is what La La Land is about: can young love survive one’s professional aspirations? It’s this intersection where La La Land’s impact comes to bear. It’s also where Stone and Gosling flourish as actors in this picture. Both are such gifted performers, they are able to squeeze out visceral, emotional responses between lines of dialogue simply through their eyes. That, to me, packs more punch than breaking out into song-and-dance at a party (although, to be fair, that party scene was pretty fun…just sayin’.).
La La Land is an enjoyable throwback to old-time Hollywood productions, but it succeeds better on the drama, rather than the musical aspects. No disrespect intended for the songwriters, though. Give credit to John Legend for delivering one of the best musical moments in the picture, but I have to say my favorites were the jazz ensembles. Your mileage may vary, which is sort of how I feel about La La Land as a whole. I know what I liked the most, but you might see it otherwise.
*** stars (out of five)