Is LA LA LAND Actually Terrible?

Howard Ho
Howard Ho
Jan 8, 2017 · 4 min read
Hmm…are we terrible? Let’s find out.

In our deeply troubled and divisive times, we see a lot of hyperbole where there doesn’t need to be. And case in point: Lee Tran Lam seems to think LA LA LAND is a terrible movie in a scathing opinion piece in Melbourne’s The Age titled “La La Land is a terrible film, but it will win Best Picture at the Oscars anyway.”

Here I’m going to breakdown the argument into 5 parts and see if “terrible” is really the right word. (This article makes more sense if you read Lee Tran Lam’s article first.)

1. Ryan and Emma can’t sing or dance well.

Verdict: NOT GUILTY.

Yes, it’s true, they are no Gene Kelly or Debbie Reynolds, but also the movie doesn’t try to lie to us about that fact. There’s something refreshing about Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone not hiding behind slick editing and autotune and CG. Even if it isn’t highly polished, they get the job done, which is to tell the story. And at least the movie was honest about what it was offering, and so it gets a pass.

2. The movie lacks memorable songs.

VERDICT: NOT GUILTY.

Not all of the songs are great, I’ll concede that. But it was hard to keep these songs from becoming earworms after seeing the movie. If you’re going to critique the music, you have to level a different complaint. (And I do have those complaints, but I’ll save them for another time.)

3. The diversity problem.

VERDICT: GUILTY.

It’s LA, one of the most diverse cities on the planet, and you can’t get a speaking role if you’re POC unless you’re John Freaking Legend. Yes, there are some diverse background players, but they are not heard from. This race problem even goes against the entire point of the movie which is that you’re supposed to root for Emma’s character to go on demeaning auditions and get cast. She’s so frustrated at how hard it is! But how can I root for her when this movie can’t be bothered to cast hardly anyone who doesn’t look like her? Every actor has a hard time of it, but least of all someone like Emma Stone who can in real life even be cast in a part-Asian role.

4. The movie is set in 2016, but doesn’t acknowledge it.

VERDICT: NOT GUILTY.

The movie does NOT take place in 2016. Ryan and Emma watch Rebel With a Cause at the Rialto, which was closed to the public in 2010. So the whole argument that they wouldn’t miss any appointments because they had iCal doesn’t work. At the very least the first half of the movie takes place on or before 2009 and probably earlier, back when the first generation of iPhones was still relatively new. In a later scene, she drives by the Rialto and sees it closed, so by that point in the film, it could be 2016 or so.

Even then, I don’t see a virtue in making modern-day references. Sure, it would be more realistic if it did, but who says movies have to be realistic? But even if realism were more appropriate, it wouldn’t matter. I use a calendar app, and I still manage to forget appointments now and then.

Also, I know more actors who are using live theater to work on their craft and gain attention than I do actors who are hitting it big from a viral video. Maybe it would be more relate-able if you live in LA and know a bunch of emerging actors.

5. The movie is just Hollywood in love with making references to itself, and it will win Best Picture because of it.

VERDICT: ALMOST GUILTY.

Yes, given the list of Birdman, Argo, and The Artist, the evidence seems clear. The tons of references to classic movie musicals (Singing in the Rain, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, An American in Paris) is also self-evident. A story about an actor trying to make it in Hollywood? Not new either.

But I could also argue this is not completely a detriment. There’s nothing wrong with making references. Even a pale imitation of a classic is at least drawing on something cool that we rarely see today. And it would be one thing if it was some kind of inauthentic cash grab, but the movie genuinely seems to revel in these references. And if you’re going to the movies because you love movies, then I think you might also love a movie made by and for movie-lovers.

FINAL VERDICT: In total, I only agreed with 1.5 out of 5 critiques.

Yes, LA LA LAND does have its flaws. But it’s also not a terrible film. And as a fan of movie musicals, I have to root for a movie that (like Chicago and Moulin Rouge and Once/Begin Again/Sing Street) gives me hope we’ll see many more in the years to come.

Howard Ho

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Howard Ho

Photoshopper, Composer, Playwright, and Breathing Enthusiast. Let's connect: http://youtube.com/howardhomusic https://howardhomusic.com