Movie Review: La La Land

Candy-coated dreams melt away eventually

Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt

This review contains spoilers.

With the recent passing of Debbie Reynolds, I’d been thinking lately about one of my favorite films when I was a child, Singin’ in the Rain. At first glance, its songs give the impression the film is about keeping a positive attitude and beating the odds when life gets you down. But when you watch it, you realize it’s about the fallacy of Hollywood, and how those most enchanted by it are often those most at its peril. La La Land makes countless references to Singin’ but in my opinion, is not as efficient in its storytelling.

La La Land is a sugary film. It’s beautiful, elegant, self-righteous and hip. In it, we meet Mia, an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring jazz pianist who wants to open his own jazz club someday. They cross paths a few times in hectic LA, but when they finally spend time together, the chemistry is undeniable. The story follows how their aspirations go up and down like the sun, until finally they lose themselves in their successes and are torn apart.

Despite my previous note about Singin’ in the Rain, I’m not even really into musicals. But my friend wanted to see it a second time, and even though there was a blizzard outside I didn’t feel like staying in. The opening number is a charming dance routine on the LA highway. Heck, haven’t we all wanted to get out of our cars and dance with each other in traffic? It made me jealous for California weather. The colors were exquisite, in glorious CinemaScope. But faded old logos and color nostalgia does not a brilliant film make. Much like Hollywood does all the time, a little sizzle and color can distract you from a mediocre plot.

The combination of old world Hollywood tricks with new technology was clever. The cars on a highway, iPhones, synthesizers, etc, all interrupt the pure nature of the musical; an apt metaphor. When the Rialto theater closes down, just after we see Mia and Sebastian go there to see Rebel Without a Cause, we’re reminded how modern tendencies and techniques are erasing the old ways of storytelling. The need for the fast and the convenient outweighs the advantage of the poetic and the crafted.

As the film progresses, everything loses its color just a bit. The real world enters in more and more. All saccharine fantasies are far too pure and bright to last for long.

My friend, on her second viewing, noticed a reference to Casablanca early on the film might have been foreshadowing of Mia & Sebastian’s doomed romance. If that were one of few references, I’d leave it there. But I couldn’t help but be reminded of an art school classmate when I was studying painting years ago. He did a series of paintings, abstracts, where he simply wrote out the names of famous artists across the canvas: Picasso, Guston, Renior, Manet, etc. His aim was to express how burdensome the weight of these great artists can be on a measly art student. However, like a bad poet, it came across like he was trying to invoke the genius of these artists into his work by simply saying their names. I see the same thing happening in La La Land. Chazelle does reference some movies in a clever way, but as a sum of its parts, all the references are merely a list of films, and only invoking them does not a brilliant film make.

I normally like to focus on just the story when it comes to movie reviews, but I can’t help realizing there were few non-white characters/actors. For a movie with its foundation in jazz, it’s kind of ridiculous. John Legend was an interesting side character, but almost the de-facto clown. He is the “new jazz” ambassador trying to make jazz cool for the new generation. He succeeds, but Mia sees the falsehood of its packaging, and questions why Sebastian wants anything to do with it. We are forced to wonder which of the two of them is the real artist. Is it racism to think someone that looks like Ryan Gosling can’t save jazz? I suppose you could look at it that way. But we never see him really socialize with the LA jazz community. He hides in his apartment surrounded by jazz records. He drives an old car. In fact, we rarely see him with a mobile phone (in fact, I don’t recall any scenes with him and a smartphone). He’s supposed to represent the old, pure jazz world, but is more a lonely die-hard fan, hiding in his bubble.

I might be the minority opinion on this, but does the song, “Audition”, have a similar tone to “The Rainbow Connection”? I imagine it’s just an influence, but perhaps it was an intended reference? I can’t tell.

However, one thing I am a sucker for is wonderful posters. I do respect the filmmakers carrying out the jazz theme in their poster design, clearly referencing classic jazz covers from greats like Hubbard and Holiday.

I respect La La Land for what it’s trying to achieve, but I think out of some sort of superficial respect or hipster-like retro appeal of classic movies, it’s jumping the shark. My guess is it’s an Oscar grab: tug at the heartstrings of the old-school Academy members to get some gold. As we saw in the most recent Golden Globes, it works. Chazelle is even careful to have very little swearing, nudity, no sex or violence and limited kissing in the film, another nod to more innocent, by-gone era.

Well, if you were a man at least. Any woman (I’m sure Reynolds would have agreed) from the time of Singin’ would likely tell you there was nothing innocent about Hollywood back then.

And there’s nothing innocent about jazz.

Should I see it? Eh, if you like musicals.

Kid-friendly? Yes

Sex/Violence? No/No

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