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.
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.