An out-of-work jazz musician and an aspiring actress fall in love in LA, but as their careers move forward, their diverging paths put a strain on the relationship.
Damien Chazelle, 2016
Barista Mia (Emma Stone) has been struggling to get a foothold in the acting industry in LA for years, but her string of failed auditions has started to become frustrating. She keeps crossing paths with jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who has been struggling to make ends meet playing music he hates. Mia hears Sebastian playing a tune of his own composing and is enchanted, but he’s rude to her. After that, their early meetings are combatively flirtatious, or perhaps flirtatiously combative. Mia shares her love of classic movies with Sebastian while he teaches her about jazz. Soon enough they’re together, but as Sebastian’s career starts to rise, Mia finds herself on a less successful path. Sebastian’s long tours away from home and Mia’s attempts to kickstart her career pull them in different directions, and they struggle to support each other while making their own way.
La La Land is an exercise in frustration for this musical theatre nerd. The second half of the movie, which is almost entirely straight drama, is an awful lot better than the cutesy, flirtatious, but beautifully shot first half of the movie, which contains most of the musical numbers. This is 90% thanks to the fact that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, despite being good actors, are aggressively mediocre singer/dancers. The movie is better when it’s not a musical than when it is, and yet its entire existence is predicated on the power of musicals. It examines the nature of a romantic comedy-style musical, the frothy and sweet LA story with the credits rolling once the leads kiss, with no attention paid to any challenges that might come after. In La La Land, the curtain stays up, the film plays on, and we see the real struggles of these characters whose love is genuine but whose lives are, at this point in time, incompatible. There’s one scene in particular that works brilliantly, a romantic night turned into an argument, playing out in increasingly stressful close-ups as their frustration at being apart and selling out and struggling artistically play out on their faces. This is where Emma Stone, in particular, really shines – but could they really not find anyone better at the other requirements for this job? Ryan Gosling, meanwhile, is even less impressive. Sebastian is an unpleasant character who has to undergo a serious change to become sympathetic by the end of the film – he’s douchey and condescending in the extreme, and his “white jazz prodigy” storyline is pretty racist.
Damien Chazelle makes incredibly attractive movies. La La Land is gorgeously shot, beautiful bright colours and lovely, crisp cinematography. The editing is so clean, and there are some stunning shots – the way the camera dances around Emma Stone during the “Audition” number is brilliant, and the film’s final dream sequence is a whirlwind of emotion and colour. Justin Hurwitz’s score is beautiful. His songs, with Pasek and Paul’s lyrics, are nostalgic and gorgeous when performed by good singers, even if they are thoroughly underwhelmingly performed on-screen. The sound mix was off too, with soft singing that made it hard to follow the lyrics most of the time – a shame when the sound editing was good for the rest of the film. Hell, Chazelle got an amazing choreographer in Mandy Moore, which gave me a feeling akin to watching the kids of Teen Beach Movie butcher Christopher Scott’s choreography: it isn’t fair to take on performers who aren’t up to the challenges that a musical movie presents. It appears to have been a conscious choice to pick people who weren’t strong singer/dancers for the parts, which to my mind is baffling. You don’t actively search for average actors to be in a movie – you want the best. It’s so rare to even get to see an original musical that it feels like a slap in the face to make one without good singers in it. I can’t wait until they make a stage musical out of the movie. I hope they cast Santino Fontana. He’d be perfect. (Seriously, Hollywood, if you want to remake this movie right now I have a dream cast list as long as my arm. ASK ME ABOUT MY DREAM CAST FOR LA LA LAND!)
La La Land on IMDb