Perhaps there’s no way that the film La La Land could measure up to the idea of La La Land, an original movie musical in an age where original movie musicals just don’t exist. Though I really, really liked the film, as I left the theater I was bothered with a nagging suspicion that there’s a reason they don’t make ’em like they used to, and it’s because they can’t. Not because La La Land isn’t a wonderfully executed film that can stand up against any movie musical from any time period, because I believe that it is. But because the form itself is so out of use today there’s just no way to judge La La Land as a movie in the current cinematic landscape.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who first encounters Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) playing piano in a bar. She connects with his off-book improvisations, but as those are what get him fired, he’s in no mood for her appreciation. They run into each other again at a party where barista Mia mocks Sebastian’s 80s cover band gig. However, he later tracks her down and they realize they both shares dreams of making it in Hollywood. Mia is working towards a successful career as an actress and Sebastian of opening a jazz club, and their relationship starts to flower. It later is jeopardized as Sebastian pushes Mia to take the big risk of writing, self-producing, and starring in her own one-woman show, while meanwhile he sells out to play in a friend’s (John Legend) newer-style jazz band that he doesn’t really believe in.
Though it is clearly romantic, Sebastian and Mia’s relationship is also a creative one, which is ultimately what does it in. The film argues an age old adage of a lot of musicals about people in showbiz, that it’s difficult to impossible to have a relationship and work in the business at the same time. This film trades in that, and a lot of other old-timey musical romance tropes as well. At first I was very worried that the guy was going to get the girl by annoying her, which happens in a lot of old musicals, but that aspect of it was turned way down at least.
Though this isn’t enough to explain my somewhat lukewarm reaction to the film, I was pretty bothered by the imbalance between the two main characters. We see a lot more of what makes Sebastian tick than Mia, and way more of him playing the piano than of Mia acting. There’s one tiny audition scene in the beginning when Mia gets about two sentences out before the casting directors stop her, and there’s the audition scene at the end where she actually ends up singing more than acting, really. With Sebastian, we hear way more about how his mission to is preserve pure jazz, we get to see him play a bunch of times, and we get to see his artistic failure (concert and photo shoot with his new band) and not Mia’s (she stages an entire one-woman show and we see none of her acting in it). Though I doubt it was intentional, and La La Land‘s identity as a musical might make it easier to include more scenes of Sebastian performing than Mia, it still was a shame that this particular aspect of older films was present here (though much milder than in some cases, I must admit). As a result, I felt much more of a connection to Sebastian than Mia, whereas her artistic drive remained somewhat of a mystery.
La La Land mainly incorporates musical numbers as classic Hollywood musicals often would, by either having them arise out of the emotions of the moment or as performances happening within the narrative. It all flows pretty well, almost never do the numbers feel jarring or unrealistic in the realm of the film. The standout song is “City of Stars,” which is easily the catchiest and evolves over time to reflect the narrative. Sebastian writes the song throughout the story, which also comments on the changes in Sebastian and Mia’s relationship in its different iterations. The last number dives into pure fantasy, taking a page out of An American in Paris in a big way. It reimagines Sebastian’s and Mia’s relationship as Sebastian performs, showing us cinematically what is in his mind. This doesn’t only include dance, but regular domestic scenes.
The only thing that bothered me is that the opening number and the one right after it has basically the same narrative function, getting you used to the fact that La La Land is unashamedly a musical and introducing you to the its LA environment of everybody trying to chase their dreams in show business. It’s too bad because after listening to the soundtrack a couple times these are actually two of the more impressive and memorable songs, but besides the fact that the first one, “Another Day of Sun,” doesn’t have any of the main characters and is more concerned with the milieu, and the second one, “Someone in the Crowd” takes basically the same idea of chasing your dreams in LA and relates it specifically to Emma Stone’s character, they almost feel like the same thing happening twice. They do have slight differences, and I like both of the songs and they are impressive numbers (especially the first). I think it would have been more straightforward and would have moved the audience into the story quicker if they were combined somehow.
The movie is just very hard for me to judge, both in whether it’s a good movie (I’m pretty sure it is) and my own reaction to it (I really liked it but didn’t love it, which I felt bad about). I so want it to be a return to old fashioned movie musicals, and it is exactly that in many ways. But I guess it’s true that you can’t go home again; when you transplant something old fashioned into current day it can’t be the same as growing up with an old movie. I have no idea how it felt to watch something like this back in the day and never will, but when you watch something that already exists years later it can’t be the same as when it first comes out. This is always true, but hit me very directly with La La Land. I feel that it is a very very well executed film and one I would have had a more emotional connection to simply if it had made a long time ago and I had come to it when it already existed for a while. There are many aspects of older musicals that could arguably make them a lot worse films than La La Land, but because it just came now I tend to go harder on it I think. This seems both unfair and totally inescapable, because if the film was made a long time ago, it wouldn’t be the film that it is.
That last paragraph was about me more than the film, but I just felt I had to get into it to make sense out of why I didn’t love this movie when it seems like the type of movie I would love. Hopefully I weighed the movie’s technically faults and merits fairly. I do really think the movie is very good, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are both suitably charming in the main roles, the songs are catchy and memorable, and the plot’s just substantial enough to justify a bunch of musical numbers which are flawlessly integrated into it. To reference An American in Paris again, “who could ask for anything more?”
“I guess I’ll see you in the movies.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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