La La Land Brings The Music, But No Musical

Hello, everyone! Today the somber task falls upon me to write a review about a movie that I wanted to love, but couldn’t. That movie is La La Land, a musical drama that is neither wholly musical nor wholly drama. Damien Chazelle’s sophomore feature is not a bad movie in any way, but it doesn’t have the passion or originality of its predecessor Whiplash. Its homages to iconic musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg show the film’s adoration for the magic of Old Hollywood, but they also prove that loving references can show how a movie like La La Land pales in comparison to the fantastic originals. The film is beautiful, fun, and witty, with powerful performances from both leads, but unlike other musical classics, it doesn’t transcend.

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Synopsis: Mia has aspirations to be a famous actress and playwright, but for the present it seems that a job as a barista on the Warner Brothers lot is the closest she will get. Meanwhile, professional jazz pianist Sebastian dreams of owning his own jazz club, while reality forces him to play stock show tunes and Christmas carols at local restaurants. After a few meet-cutes, Mia and Sebastian fall in love, but their relationship isn’t fated for smooth sailing.  In Hollywood, nothing comes easy, and ambitions, instant stardom, and the burdens of sacrifice can mean the difference between the romance of a lifetime and its permanent destruction.

The Good: There is plenty to love in La La Land, so I’ll start with the easiest: the visuals. Inspired by the popping vibrancy of Singin’ in the Rain and the precious pastels of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the film’s color palette dazzles from start to finish. The opening number is one of the prettiest. Chazelle manages to transform a crowded Los Angeles freeway into a glittery stage awash with twirling dancers in jewel-toned costumes. The big numbers are the most satisfying. Mia’s journey into a Hollywood Hill’s soiree features a zany bit with an underwater camera, and the ending number, which is astoundingly reminiscent of both Gene Kelly’s dreamy dance sequence in Singin’ and Umbrella‘s iconic resolution, is stunning to behold. A great musical needs beautiful visuals, and on that front, La La Land excels.

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Of course, another essential component to a great musical is the musical score. As in Whiplash, Chazelle’s old college roommate Justin Hurwitz composed the score and the songs, to great success. La La Land is as much visually defined as it is musically defined. It is a musical in the sense that without its score, it wouldn’t be the same movie. Many of the songs have a jazzy, big band feel to them, but some, like “City of Stars,” which was featured in the wonderful trailer, are moodier. I would say that Hurwitz is a better orchestral composer than a songwriter. Songs like “Another Day of Sun” and “A Lovely Night” are nice songs that I’d listen to a few times, but his score is just enchanting. My favorite pieces are “Planetarium” and “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme.”

Despite the fact that neither Ryan Gosling nor Emma Stone are professional singers or dancers (though Ryan is a dancing beast), they hold their own in this very singey dancey movie. The reason for that is their compelling characters, which Gosling and Stone inhabit like a second skin. Their romance is sweet at the right times, bumpy and sad too, but never false. Just as in Crazy, Stupid, Love, their chemistry lifts the whole film to new heights. Apart, they’re charismatic and enjoyable to watch, but together, they’re a pair you can’t look away from. However, that can be a double edged sword, which brings me to:

The Bad: One of the faults of the film is that while Gosling and Stone really bring Mia and Sebastian to life, they make it difficult to view them as characters, rather than Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in a musical. Ryan Gosling is in his niche as a charmingly grumpy artist with a comeback for every slight, and Emma Stone is the goofy, bubbly smartass that she plays  when indulging her comedic side. One particular interaction between the two features Mia and Sebastian hurling lighthearted insults at each other at the pool party. The scene was, unfortunately, indistinguishable from a scene in Crazy, Stupid, Love, which makes me think that it’s not that the characters are too similar,  but the way the actors play them.

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Like I mentioned earlier, Gosling and Stone are not professional singers. This could fly by unnoticed in a movie with a dance number or two, but since La La Land defines itself as a musical, the singing doesn’t really cut it. Gosling is alright (his voice is pleasantly deep, but not always on key), and Stone has a sweet tone to her voice, but their voices are too weak to carry their dramatic songs. It makes me wonder how “City of Stars” would sound with a killer set of vocals behind it. Similarly, even songs like “Another Day in the Sun” feature weak, breathy vocalists, and they were chosen specifically for their vocals. The dancing is passable, even fun, but again, it’s not musical quality. To me, the whole point of a musical is to see really, really spectacular dancers and singers showcase their talent. The story is important, yes, but it’s completely secondary to the quality of artistry displayed by the leads. Compare, if you will, the duet scene in La La Land  with one in Singin’:

Both are tap routines, but the differences in quality and skill between the two routines are astronomical. Now, I know that it’s not really Gosling and Stone’s faults that they’re not professional dancers, but if you’re going to have a musical, Chazelle, then for god’s sake, hire people who can act, sing and dance! Broadway is full of people who can by golly do all three!

Which brings me to another issue with the “musical” part of La La Land. From the choreography, to the cinematography, something is not quite right. I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but when Chazelle shoots a big musical number, he isn’t doing it to highlight the dancing or singing. He shoots it like one would an action scene, with too many cuts that hinder the audience’s ability to see full movements. I chalk this up to him not being a musical director. You wouldn’t think it’s a thing, but it is. Guys like Kenny Ortega, who directed two of the High School Musical films, as well as Hairspray, know how to shoot a dance number. Chazelle does not, and his limitation in that area hindered my enjoyment of these scenes.

Along this line, another component of a musical is that the dancing doesn’t really take place in real life. When dance numbers happen, like in “Run and Tell That” in Hairspray, it’s a fantasy. The characters are expressing their emotions through dancing and singing, but as soon as the idea has been communicated, they’re back to their ordinary lives. The issue with La La Land was that I didn’t feel a clear distinction between this fantasy dancing and real life. The opening number sure felt like fantasy, as did the planetarium scene, but in other areas, such as when Mia and Sebastian do a little tap duet, or when Sebastian dances by himself on the pier, it seems like that’s real life. In Sebastian’s case, a man actually slaps him when he tries to dance with his wife. Things like that don’t happen in musicals, or they’d break the fantasy aspect.

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That brings me to my last point, which is the clash of musical and drama, and therefore fantasy and realism. Despite all the dancing, Mia and Sebastian are dealing with serious problems in their lives. They are striving to succeed in a world that doesn’t want to let them, and when success does find one of them, it triggers the other one’s insecurities. The “struggling artist in Hollywood” never feels fresh, not like Andrew Neiman’s struggle in Whiplash did. Perhaps it’s because we’ve seen that story before (in Singin’ in the Rain for chrissakes) that the story doesn’t really hold water, but it could also be that the conflict, when it comes, feels a bit forced. And the ending, which is a such a direct homage to Umbrellas that you could almost call it a rip-off, doesn’t make sense if you examine it too closely. Musicals don’t have to have happy endings, but there does need to be veracity behind their emotional conflicts. Individually, I believed in what Mia and Sebastian were feeling, but when their stories intertwined, my belief faded.

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Final consensus: La La Land is a beautiful film in its own right, with fantastic imagery and music, as well as strong lead performances. As a musical, however, it fails to distinguish itself, mostly due to a lack of commitment to musical tenets. It’s a worthy second effort from director Damien Chazelle, but although both Whiplash and La La Land speak to the struggle for artistic success, the former captures the painful, desperate essence of that feeling with an authenticity that La La Land can’t match.

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