La La Land (2016)

 

I must confess that over the course of the initial buzz surrounding La La Land, I somehow managed to shut my eyes and stop my ears to anything regarding the plot-line. I’d have to live under a rock not to know that it was a love story and a musical, but that genre of film is so wide and overdone that I wasn’t interested enough to give it a go. But then of course it swept the Golden Globes, winning in all seven of its nominated categories, and breaking the record for the number of Golden Globes won by a movie. I mean, that just couldn’t go ignored. So I got myself to one of the startlingly few theaters in my area that was actually playing La La Land, and occupied, no lie, the worst seat I have ever had at the movies in my life. If there’s anyone out there that actually enjoys front row theater seats, I’m questioning your sanity and your eyesight. All that’s left to say on the matter is thank God for reclining AMC theater seats.

If the first few minutes set the tone for the rest of the film, I think I would’ve tried escaping through the emergency exit. Big musical numbers in excess can wear on a person’s nerve, because why sing your feelings if you can just say it in less than a quarter of the time. Thankfully, La La Land was more a reiteration of the musicals of the silver screen rather than the Broadway musical variety that we are so used to seeing in modern films. Directed by Damien Chazelle, La La Land was a beautiful mixture of color, music and drama. Linus Sandgren was in charge of cinematography and boy did he do a good job. The scenes were so saturated with color- even the night ones- and the camera raced around LA, skipping everywhere like an excited little kid seeing the world through green eyes. The effect was admittedly dizzying at times, but through it I felt how active the movement made me feel. What would my eyes choose to focus on in the frame before the camera moved on?

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The plot itself seems to follow a very traditional storyline. Meet-cute with our lead characters played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, followed by a whirlwind romance, problem and resolution. What I appreciated about this film in particular, though, was the way it revitalized that tired dramatic arc and made it interesting. Rather than one storyline for both of the characters, I like to think that both lead characters each had their own storyline that featured each other for a time while they crossed paths. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the element that brought those two story lines crashing together — City of Stars. And by this I don’t mean LA, although as the title suggests, LA is where they are brought together (and is a presence that the director never lets us forget). City of Stars, composed by Justin Hurwitz, and written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is the haunting theme that sparks the beginning of the lead couple’s involvement, and follows them over the course of their relationship. The song is played several times in the film, and yet somehow manages to hit a different emotional note each time. And even on its own, the song is just magical. Give it a listen if you haven’t heard it already. It won a Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice award for Pete’s sake!

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My favorite elements of this film, which you’ve probably already sensed, were the cinematography and the class. This film was just oozin’ with class. The costumes, the hair, the music, everything! I mean, the film is clearly set in modern day Los Angeles but you can’t help but shake the feeling that you’ve just been transported back into the mid twentieth century Hollywood scene. And to make my inner film nerd’s dreams come true, there were references everywhere to musical films of the past. Most notably, the dream dance sequence where Gosling and Stone’s characters waltz (probably not a waltz but they’re dancing) in the air, was a direct nod to Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse’s dance scene in Singing in the Rain. Very exciting stuff. The rest of the dancing in La La Land was pretty awesome too. Especially Ryan Gosling’s. Man can dance.

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So here’s the thing. Everyone’s up in arms over the ending. I feel like there are three groups of people: those who liked it, those who didn’t like it, and those who didn’t understand it. I think it was a fitting ending given what I mentioned about their separate story lines, and if you think about it, ends were tied up quite nicely. I will say I didn’t appreciate the montage at the end that kind of just rubbed salt in some open wounds (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen it), but hey, it gave the film a nice emotional punch, which if I’m being honest I didn’t really feel much of in the beginning and middle.

What I personally didn’t really get was how La La Land could go on and on about jazz and its origins, but not once mention or give some screen time to the African American communities who created it. Gosling’s character says everything under the moon about how much he loves jazz and nothing about the people who should take credit for its inception. I get that the Lighthouse Cafe in the film is actually a real spot that’s been hosting live jazz music since 1949 and it’s great. You can tell that Goslings’ character idolizes jazz and it’s creators, but is that enough? Especially in this time when we are calling for increased diversity in film. I was very conscious of the lack of racial diversity in a film about LA, which is so culturally diverse. The only scene where I felt it properly represented was the opening musical scene, but those characters were all minor – we never see them again. Same goes for all of the other people of color in the movie. And then you can argue that John Legend is in it. My argument against that is that he barely is. His character didn’t really do much for me. He came and went. Gosling’s character just kind of got stuck in the uncomfortable trope of being the white savior that saves music with roots in the African American community from extinction. I really wish the film hadn’t gone in that direction but it did. And that makes me sad.

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Overall, great film, great soundtrack, great acting. Aesthetically speaking, you will not be disappointed. I am not so in love with it as very many people are, but I can understand its charm. That being said, anyone who hasn’t seen it, should. The two hours that I spent watching the film were by no means a waste of time and I believe that whether or not you like or you don’t there’s something to get out of it.

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4 thoughts on “La La Land (2016)

  1. (Full disclosure: I haven’t seen “La La Land”…yet) This review was so well thought out. Every time I saw a commercial for this, I thought, “How is this different from so many other musical movies?” and worried about the lack of diversity accreditation for the jazz elements. What I appreciate about this is that you don’t shy away from that element while still acknowledging the aesthetically-pleasing visual aspects of the film! In media, all I’ve seen are the visual elements…

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