Released in late 2016, La La Land stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as two aspiring performers trying to make it big in Los Angeles, her an actress, and he a jazz musician. They meet and fall for each other, singing, laughing, and crying their way through the ups-and-downs of life and love.
Right from the beginning the movie introduces itself as a musical, and while music dominates the film’s identity, there is a solid plot holding everything together. This isn’t a happy-go-lucky number about how great life is, but rather a story about two people who are willing to dream. On an initial viewing this film is most definitely above-average, but there are a couple of things holding it back from being a truly great film. In this review we’ll talk about the good, the bad, and what makes La La Land unique, aside from the obvious musical focus.
There is so much that this film does right, the first being that it give priority to the story. So many movies focus on trying to fit within a genre, ticking off what they think audiences want to see, or they are tied down by producers who wants to play it safe and rehash what has already been done, that story often takes a back seat. La La Land is always aware that Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling) are what the audience cares about the most. Every single one of their actions and reactions has to do with their goal of succeeding in Hollywood, and it is this consistency that holds our attention. You don’t need flashy explosions, awesome computer-generated graphics, or epic music all the time; show us two people in love and facing the world together, do it convincingly, and that’ll be enough, which is precisely what La La Land does.
It wouldn’t be much of a musical if the songs were bland, but the music, of course, is sensational, alternating between energetic liveliness that is full of life to slow and sensual, reflecting the passion within our characters’ hearts. Though at times it was difficult to hear the lyrics, the visuals do a good job conveying the tone of the song, and somehow it all works together. I don’t have any musical theory training, so that’s really the best way I can describe it.
Lastly, I wanted to compliment the film’s aesthetic design. Everything from the clothes to the props to the backdrops is alive with colour and vibrancy. Films being a visual medium, much can be conveyed through what you show to your audience’s eyes, and dynamic colour themes only help to perpetuate La La Land‘s relationship with the real world, because despite everything happening in the news so far for 2017, our world is beautiful precisely because it is full of colour, life, and diversity, and the movie wholeheartedly celebrates this fact.
Despite the film deserving praise for putting story first, there was a noticeable bump in the road towards the end of the third act. Mia and Seb eventually achieve their goals: she becomes an a-list celebrity while Seb finally opens his jazz bar. While the film was pointing towards this goal, it all happens in an instant and off-screen, so we never really feel like they earned it. Seb in particular was part of a successful band and was locked into a contract, so why didn’t we get to see him make the decision to break off from the group? Five years had passed, so what happened to make Mia forget about Seb, get married with someone else and have a kid? Everything happened so quick that it felt unbelievable.
We want to see our heroes succeed, because it’s inspiring and usually makes for a good story. La La Land promised a story where two people would be in love and achieve their lofty goals. What ends up happening is like being promised a five-star steak dinner and waiting thirty minutes only to get a overcooked slab of flank. We never get the feeling that Seb earned his jazz club, and while we do see Mia’s hard work, the transition from her getting a part to becoming a super-celebrity happens within the space of one cut, that is, from one scene to the next. We also never see exactly how they fell out, and it is presumably because of scheduling conflict. The ending is still good and bittersweet, but it doesn’t feel substantial.
This is unrelated and also a little nitpicky, but worth considering. Both leads performed magnificently for their parts, but it felt like Gosling has played this role before. Not sure if this is really a criticism, but it’s a good thing when we see actors be able to perform in a variety of roles; here, Gosling plays the same guy he’s always been good at: the slightly awkward, sort of nice, sort of asshole-y, sarcastic pretty boy. There seems to be a lack of range in his ability, and when he tries to play a part outside his comfort zone, it doesn’t seem to work (so far). Good thing, then, that Mr. Gosling knows how to dance.
A Breath of Fresh Air
In a world where we’re getting a Star Wars movie every year, and producers are eager to jump on the next reboot/remake/re-imagining of old classics, La La Land stands out as a courageous and important project. It’s a musical comedy-drama, and how often do you see such a description backed by a-list celebrities and decent marketing? The film tells a common story in a new way, and anything that isn’t a bastardization of our childhood ought to be given a chance.
Allow me to also be a prude for just a moment. I’d like to applaud La La Land for being classy and not including any sex scenes. This is a love story, and with every such movie it seems the “both of them topless with the sheets covering the girl” scene is a staple. Not sure how intentional this was, but the film succeeds in making a statement when it chose not to including topless/sex scenes: it’s a reminder that love doesn’t have to be represented by people humping each other, and that may be a contributing factor to why Mia and Seb’s relationship is convincing. They appreciate one another’s talents, they support each other, and they sing and dance in sync, and that is why we don’t need to see them in bed to know they really care about one another.
We need more movies like La La Land, movies that are willing to try something new, to introduce new characters and give us new stories. This film has a solid script, amazing performances, and many catchy songs. More likely than not the ending will make you feels, and what else is art good for, if not to remind us that we’re all human?
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.