La La Land – Film Review

la-la-landHi I’m a joyless McKilljoy who thought that La La Land was just ok.

I should probably preface it by saying that I’m not the biggest lover of musicals, an odd Chicago or Grease aside, and the old-school musicals in particular leave me cold, so a modern-day homage to the musicals of the 40s and 50s was never going to be an automatic sell for me. But I can still appreciate those older movies’ earnest, unabashed romanticism and I can hum an odd tune or two from many of them, whereas I found the music in La La Land instantly forgettable save for the low-key main theme with its simple but catchy piano riff. Also, while Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are both gorgeous and have a genuinely great chemistry, as singers they don’t rise above adequate. It’s a bit ironic that my favourite musical moment of the film happens when Gosling’s character is performing with his sellout pop-jazz band and the movie hands the microphone to John Legend, who can well and truly sing.

Gosling and Stone play Sebastian and Mia, two young L.A. dreamers; he’s a talented if arrogant jazz pianist who stubbornly sticks to a purist view of jazz and wants to open his own club some day; she’s a barista and an aspiring actress doing the rounds of auditions that are yet to amount to anything. They meet, bicker in a charming fashion, then fall in love, all through the series of song-and-dance numbers that sometimes take on magical realism, sending the couple on a flight among the stars. Soon enough, their relationship comes under the strain when Sebastian accepts an offer from an old colleague (John Legend) to play in a commercially minded band, which takes him on a lengthy tour and rather tarnishes him in Mia’s eyes.

The movie beautifully blends the modern-day L.A. with the nostalgic imagery of the 50’s and 60’s, and embraces the bright, joyful primary colours, especially in its first more exuberant half. Even though it hasn’t captivated me the way it seems to have done many viewers, there’s at least nothing cynical or annoyingly ingratiating about the movie’s attempts to charm the pants off you. Ryan Gosling has blossomed into a bona fide movie star over the years, and he makes smooth charisma feel as effortless as taking a breath. The film suffers whenever he’s offscreen, which is not a slight against Emma Stone; her hugely appealing performance aside I just felt like the movie tells you nothing about Mia other than that she’s beautiful and smart and really wants to be an actress. Sebastian at least has his flaws to make him a more well-rounded person, but Mia’s character is ultimately hollow.

Gosling and Stone’s magnetism aside, the story is rather thin and full of the be-true-to-your-dream clich├ęs, which is not even the real problem I had with La La Land – I was more confused throughout by the points the movie was trying to make… or not. For instance, at one point Keith, by all appearances a nice, genuine guy, challenges Sebastian’s jazz snobbery by saying that his purism condemns jazz to a dusty mausoleum, and I went, yeah fair point there Keith. But then the movie ends up taking all sorts of cheap shots at the mainstream stardom Sebastian flirts with. Sebastian’s motivations for sticking with his paycheck job are kinda confusing: he takes it just because he overhears Mia trying to justify him to her mother? Why does he suddenly think that Mia’s mother’s opinion is a good reason for giving up his cherished dream? Is his enjoyment of the crowd’s response during the band’s tour a way to say that beneath disdain he really only had craved approval? Where’s a real resolution to his story – I don’t mean the end result but how he eventually gets there? How are we meant to feel about the final showstopper sequence, which despite the starry-eyed mood is really all about Mia and her needs and dreams, without giving a slightest damn about Sebastian’s dreams?

In the end, I think the problem is that the director Damien Chazelle attempts to find some kind of nuance in the story while also trying to pay tribute to the simplicity of the old Hollywood musicals, two approaches that end up working against each other. Overall, while never a chore to watch, La La Land is going to make a rather forgettable Best Picture winner, if it goes all the way later this year.

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