It seems like an awfully long time ago the first ripples of buzz for La La Land starting moving through the film community. Ripples which since developed into a full blown tsunami. And, as is customary around awards season, there has also been significant backlash against this film which seems to have captivated so many. With La La Land now sharing the throne with Titanic and All About Eve for most Oscar nominated film in history, both the fans and the critics are more vocal than ever.
La La Land is a film I was practically sold on before I even saw one image. I was completely blown away by Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, a piece of work that made me think this particular director was going places and I was going to follow him to those places – figuratively speaking. La La Land was also described as a re-invention of the old Hollywood musical – yes please! And then, the casting of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, whose on-screen chemistry is so powerful the producers probably saw nothing but tap dancing dollar signs on the screen.
In case you are one of the few people who have absolutely no idea what La La Land is about, let me bring you up to speed. Mia and Sebastian are two young people in Los Angeles, struggling to achieve their dreams. Mia is an actress, but spends more time working in a coffee shop than acting, and has to endure repeated disappointments at castings. Sebastian is a jazz pianist, longing for the golden age of jazz music and dreaming of opening his own jazz club. The two meet and develop a relationship, but the relationship is tested by the all-consuming pursuit of their dreams.
How to define success, and the sacrifices necessary to achieve greatness, were issues that were beautifully dealt with in Whiplash, and La La Land picks up on a lot of the same themes. It is a movie that quite forcefully rejects the notion of “having it all” and in this way puts itself in opposition to some of the more dreamy-eyed, naive Hollywood narratives. The look of La La land may be nostalgic, but the message is entirely pragmatic.
And yet, I have to say that I wasn’t completely dazzled by La La Land. I really, really enjoyed it, make no mistake. But, taking into consideration what Chazelle has done before, I am a tad baffled that this is the film to sweep the awards circuit. It has taken me a long time to digest this film and try to reconcile my conflicting emotions around it.
The chemistry between Stone and Gosling is as cracking as ever, the script is funny and the cinematography is both dreamy and daring. Emma Stone is just on fire in the best possible sense throughout the film. The dancing and singing is not Rogers/Astaire level but I actually love the soundtrack so much I bought it. So what’s missing, and why isn’t it something I would put in the running for movie of the year?
A very good friend of mine said that she wished they would have just left out the musical parts of La La Land. And I have come to realise that I kind of agree. I like the musical parts, and I like Mia and Sebastian’s journeys towards their dreams. But I maybe like those things better apart? I understand that a key part of the film’s message is that this is a musical which looks so much like a classic Hollywood musical but is not, in actual fact, that movie. And I also appreciate that the film’s musical elements often have a grittier, more realistic take on classic musical scenes. You can really see the dirt and the uneven surfaces of LA’s roads, and Gosling and Stone are more relatable thanks to their less than perfect dancing skills.
But, when you commit yourself to this particular genre, you will invariably be measured according to the standards of the greatest musicals. There’s a really fascinating video essay which does a side-by-side comparison of scenes in La La Land that were inspired by scenes in other musicals. I watched it as I was interested to see what little nods Chazelle had given to these classics, but was also struck by how much better and more vibrant those original scenes looked.
Again, this isn’t to say that I in any way disliked La La Land or that I wish it would burn in the fiery pits of hell as some people seem to feel.
It is a lovely film, which I will probably watch again and which I will encourage others to watch. The message of the the film stuck with me afterwards and made me think. The film as a whole just isn’t as polished and punchy as one might have expected given Chazelle’s previous work – and yes, I do know how young and “new” he still is! I’m a year older and can only make Stikbot videos with my kids, so I really shouldn’t talk.
I wonder if anyone else out there is in the same camp as I find myself, as it seems to be that you either have to think La La Land is the best evs or the worst evs? So let me know how you feel about it in the comments, I’d love to know!