La La Land (2016) Review

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8.5/10

La La Land is a movie that is hypercharged with emotion, but also very simplistic. It’s the songs that have this effect, but is this the fate of every musical? It is kind of what a musical does. The songs in La La Land are part of the plot, but they pick out single feelings, or single moments in time, and then expand on that for three minutes. So, there is not much time left for more complex storytelling, or twisting plotlines that tie themselves into knots. It is the intention of the songs to reach us inside, to make sure that we are totally feeling what these characters are feeling.

But the film did not always manage to reach me. Some songs looked technically very impressive, but I didn’t really feel that much. Or, one song in particular stood in for what is supposed to be an audition of Emma Stone’s character (I’m not sure her name was ever mentioned), but the song itself seemed rather disengaged from the rest of the plot. At these moments, the film was pretty to look at and to listen to, but it wasn’t reaching me emotionally, only sort of aesthetically.

But aesthetically, it is a stunning movie to say the least. Everything – the scenes, the songs – is choreographed and timed to perfection. The camera moves effortlessly to give the best perspectives, close-ups and good compositions. The light work makes this movie. It’s really quite remarkable. Ryan Gosling, he’s a talented man. Not only is he an excellent actor, but he knows how to play the piano very well. As a singer, he did alright. So did Emma Stone, but neither of them were world class singers but they did alright. Their main power is still acting. And that came out in between the songs.

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So halfway through the movie I found myself thinking: this is good, yes, it is technically a remarkable thing, and amazingly directed. I just wish that the story wasn’t such a simple, cookie cutter fairy tale. Los Angeles is set up as a city of dreams, and for the movie the cityscape feels slightly twisted to fit into a dreamlike narrative. The whole thing tiptoed around reality and flirted with magical realism. Which was artistic and inspiring, but was also another small barrier to really feel engaged with the story.

Only in the last act, the last half hour or so, the film rises up from “good but a bit formulaic” to “a stunning achievement”. The somewhat simplistic love story takes some turns that make it all a bit more interesting, a bit more bittersweet, and in the end it did move me. It was beautiful. The artistry of the scenes and editing speeds up until, near the end, we move through some sort of extended montage that is one of the best film sequences of the year.

Director Damien Chazelle gathered high praise last year with Whiplash, another movie focused on music. La La Land is an amazing continuation of his career, and Chazelle is ready to break out into the Hollywood mainstream. Maybe he will become a household name. In any case, it will very interesting to follow his work.

I just have to say one thing: it wasn’t the songs that made this work for me. It was the directing, the passion and the playful artistry.

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6 Responses to La La Land (2016) Review

  1. Tom says:

    I agree, some of the tunes for me were not very memorable. I recall the opening ‘Another Day of Sun’ and ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream’) vividly, but the rest of it was kind of this blur of slower, more melancholic jazz numbers. Damien Chazelle is using his love of jazz in interesting ways, it’s informed two tonally different films and it has functioned in different ways in both films. Whiplash was angry, La La Land is dreamy and more romantic. And I too felt the themes he was exploring in the latter were less compelling than they were in Whiplash. Mostly because I felt he was treading water with the way he interrogates music and career ambition as catalysts for his character arcs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember the song “city of stars” but not much else. Also, I’m not really convinced that the characters needed to break up over their ambitions. I don’t know. The same thing happened in Whiplash: Miles Teller breaks up with his girlfriend because he wants to be the best drummer ever. To me that seems like breaking up something real to pursue some arbitrary goal. There is something fishy about this message of unbounded ambition. Everybody has to have a great passion nowadays to the point that it is mandatory in the job market, or an expectation just to be seen as an interesting person. That’s not dreamy. I too want to achieve things when I am working on them, but watching a Damien Chazelle film makes me feel as if I have Ambition Deficit Disorder.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tom says:

        I agree. There’s a point where these messages can become overbearing (if that’s the right word?) or stale, even. It felt closer to stale to me in the case of La La Land. And I might have to borrow that idea, ‘Ambition Deficit Disorder.’ haha I like that.

        Like

  2. vinnieh says:

    I look forward to seeing this when it’s released in England. Nice review.

    Like

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