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Review: La La Land

January 13, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

la-la-land-posterThe first thing we see gracing the screen in La La Land, the new throwback to old musicals that is good but not quite as good as you’ve heard, is a nicely retro logo for Summit Entertainment, presented on a black and white screen in Academy aspect ratio.

The screen pulls out to announce a CinemaScope production, switching from black and white to colour.  It’s a cute little touch that might have worked better if the film itself was actually a period piece, and this old school vibe is somewhat broken by the overly bright production number that follows.

Staged in a modern day Los Angeles traffic jam, the high energy and somewhat corny song and dance number sees drivers getting out of their vehicles and dancing atop them as they break into song, only to have their moment shattered by the honking cars spilling out onto the freeway ramp in the background.

It’s all pretty earnest and likeable, but to a fault.  While impressively pulled off as a single take, it’s a sequence that has the exuberance cranked up to such high levels that it almost feels like it’s trying too hard to be pleasing.  The song is literally called “Another Day of Sun.”  The number also feels strangely separate because it’s unlike anything else that happens in La La Land, and it doesn’t really match the more subdued tone of pretty much everything that follows.  But it sure is an eye-popping way to open the film.  It’s contradictory in tone, but it serves to impress, and maybe that’s the whole point.

And this is a summation of my thoughts on the entire film, a work perched somewhat curiously between old fashioned and modern, dreamy fantasy and cold reality.  I’ve seen the film twice now, the first time at TIFF the morning after its glitzy premiere that lit social media on fire, and the second time just this week because I wanted to give the film a second look before finalizing this review.  Both times I found myself swept up by parts of it, while other parts left me wanting.  It’s a good movie that has a lot to like, but it also feels somewhat overhyped.

What the opening sequence serves as is an excuse to have our two main characters first glimpse each other as rival drivers, before their next convenient meet-cute, of which there will be a few.  Mia (Emma Stone) is a struggling actress who works as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, going in for countless auditions but rarely getting callbacks.  Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is an old school jazz musician, who dreams of opening his own club to keep the musical art form alive.  After several more chance encounters in Los Angeles, Mia and Sebastian start to fall in love, and we follow the ups and downs of their romance and artistic careers over four seasons.

Directed by Damian Chazelle, crafting a glitzy followup to his stunning jazz drumming drama Whiplash, La La Land sets itself up as a modern day throwback to classic musicals, and this is pretty much exactly what we get.  The film does have some enjoyable and nicely done musical numbers that harken back to the type of productions that used to be more commonplace in Hollywood, yet sadly don’t really get made anymore.  But these musical numbers also can’t completely distract from some of the problems in La La Land, which many enamoured audiences might choose to overlook.

The story itself is pretty thin and sometimes sags, without enough actual plot to justify the bloated two hour running time.  The characters have a tendency to feel like under developed archetypes, and while they are often charming because of the actors playing them, also aren’t particularly fleshed out.  When they fight at the dinner table partway through the film, in what is admittedly a well acted scene, it largely comes out of nowhere and feels more like an easy way to inject some manufactured drama into what is otherwise pretty thin soup.  Any supporting characters who appear in the film are the very definition of one-note, and merely just there to fill out scenes.

The film’s main subplot involves Mia pursuing her acting through a one-woman stage show, while Sebastian is offered the chance to play keyboard in a jazz-pop fusion band run by his old friend Keith (John Legend).  But you see, Keith is a populist musician and is therefore supposed to be the antithesis of what Sebastian stands for in terms of artistic integrity, which throws a wrench into his relationship with Mia.  Keith is a one-note character who is presented as a needless antagonistic presence, and yet his character is the one who offers the best advice in the film.  “How are you gonna be a revolutionary, if you’re such a traditionalist?  You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future,” he tells Sebastian, advice that the character, and the film itself, might not want to hear.

And herein lies the problem with La La Land, not to mention the racially problematic nature of its story about a white man trying to save jazz, a traditionally black musical art form.  This is a film that basically operates on nostalgia, but also fancies itself as being fresh and exciting.  The film aims to pay tribute to the past, with an old retro movie house showing Rebel Without a Cause playing into its plot and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Singin’ in the Rain serving as clear influences, and yet its sensibilities are often distinctly modern.  But like how the retro logos at the beginning clash with the images of a modern freeway that immediately follow, the film’s messages end up feeling somewhat muddled.

Which brings us to the ending.  Although there are many moments to enjoy throughout La La Land, I really wish the film had ended in a different way.  I have no problems with a somber ending, but the outcome here, as revealed through a “five years later” epilogue, rings somewhat false to me.  A second viewing certainly reveals more little things that lead up to it, but I still don’t like what it has to say, and it isn’t really established in a way that makes it believable to the characters.  I understand the want to end the film on a bittersweet note, but I wish things were left more ambiguous.

It’s not that the ending is badly done – the finale is beautifully filmed and edited together, culminating in a wordless, nearly ten minute dream sequence – but I just don’t find it an overly satisfying outcome for this movie.  It ends on a note of depression that feels disappointing compared to the elation promised earlier on, and it feels like a betrayal of the ode to dreamers and falling in love through artistic passion that the film sets itself up to be.  The film’s message ultimately becomes about choosing your career over love and compromising to follow your dreams, which again stands in stark contrast to the feel good escapism that is promised at the start.

I get the point is to shatter the illusion of Los Angeles, or La La Land as it’s both affectionately and sarcastically called in real life, by showing that dreams and reality often don’t mix, and sometimes the only way to carve out a name for yourself is by settling for mediocrity.  But the film can’t be all things.  It wants to be old and new, depressing and uplifting, joyous and contemplative.  On the one hand, we’ve got the candy-coated colours of the opening number, or the magical realism of our two lovers floating through the air at the Griffith Observatory, but the film also tries to cement itself in reality.  It’s an ambitious tonal balance to attempt, but La La Land sometimes ends up feeling stuck in limbo between comforting throwback and modern day exploration of careerism over romance.

The other problem is that these themes of artistic ambitions overtaking your life were already explored much better in Damian Chazelle’s own Whiplash only a few years back.  The director tries to touch on similar themes of ambition and pursuing your art at all costs, even to the point of making personal sacrifices.  But where Whiplash had the charged intensity of a thriller, propelled by a fierce performance from J.K. Simmons that made the dynamic between teacher and student so fascinating to watch, La La Land feels somewhat dramatically lax.

For example, when Miles Teller’s character in Whiplash broke up with his girlfriend to focus more exclusively on his art, it was presented as a cold and calculating move, without any of the pretences of romantic yearning that similar decisions are treated with here.  Watching Mia pursue her acting dreams in La La Land is also inherently less compelling than the pursuit of perfection that provided the crux of Whiplash, because the glimpses we see of her auditions suggest the character doesn’t really have enough acting talent to even get the big break she so doggedly pursues.

But Damian Chazelle still stages some great moments throughout, and there is certainly stuff to enjoy here.  A second viewing helped me further appreciate just how good Ryan Gosling really is in the film, moving through many scenes like a classic movie star, and slipping perfectly into the pure dreamer persona of his character.  Emma Stone also deserves credit for fleshing out her mostly generic and underdeveloped character, who essentially reads as your prototypical wannabe actor, and for the most part making the role her own.  As we have learned from their other appearances together, the two actors play well alongside each other and make a delightful dream team.

Although most of the choreography is pretty basic, the dance numbers are still enjoyable to watch, and the songs by Justin Hurwitz are pleasant and serve the story well.  Ryan Gosling’s quiet piano song “City of Stars” is a pretty lovely tune that will get stuck in your head in the best possible way, and a solo number that Emma Stone has near the end is also nicely pulled off.  A number that the two of them share against the nighttime Los Angeles skyline as they are just starting to fall in love also charms, even if their voices aren’t the strongest on the track.  For me, the best song is actually “Start a Fire,” which John Legend performs in one of the film’s most vibrant scenes.

From a purely technical standpoint, La La Land consistently deserves praise.  The production design captures the feel of the painted sets that dominated the musicals from Hollywood’s Golden Age, right down to softly glowing lamps dotting along the streets.  The cinematography by Linus Sandgren, who also shot the last two David O. Russell movies, is often gorgeous.  Shot on film, there is a smoothness and fluidity to the camera movements, often swooping in between master shots and medium closeups that allow many sequences to appear as unbroken takes.  The use of colour is also memorable.

There are entire stretches where the film does come alive, including a trip to a jazz club where Sebastian passionately describes why he finds the music so exciting, and in these moments it’s hard not to get caught up in the film, even upon second viewing.  At its best, La La Land will make you swoon with its gorgeous production design, lovely tunes and heart melting chemistry between the two leads, who both shine when onscreen together.

Put simply, the whirlwind romance and dreamy world of La La Land are often worth getting caught up in, before reality disappointingly intrudes at the end.  Like I said at the start, this is a good movie, it’s just not as good as you’ve heard.

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