BFI London Film Festival: La La Land

La La Land
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend and JK Simmons
LFF Screening October 7th, 8th, 16th, 2016
Watch now on iTunes

by Joanna Orland

Garnering universal acclaim since its premiere at Venice Film Festival, La La Land is a festival darling and sure bet to make some waves at next year’s Oscars.  While there are many aspects to La La Land which I admire, respect or am in awe of, there are just as many which I condemn and outright dislike.  I am in the minority in my opinion as audiences and critics alike have been swept up in the nostalgia and spectacle of this glorified romcom in the guise of a musical.

I am not typically a fan of the onscreen musical, but have a few notable exceptions in the repertoire including Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Velvet Goldmine, Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, Moulin Rouge, Enchanted, most classic Disney cartoons and my latest obsession of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  I never minded the movie musical until 2012’s Les Misérables which incited an actual panic attack in me, my reaction so adverse that at one point I had to put my head between my knees to avoid fainting from the fear that it would just never end.  I also accidentally yet whole-heartedly applauded at Russell Crowe’s death scene.  Since then, I’ve become a bit weary of musicals and my potential adverse reactions to them.  I managed to sit through Into the Woods without issue, and even discovered my newfound love for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, in spite of the odds being stacked against it.  But I did not make it through La La Land unscathed as the panic once again set in with the fear that it would never end.

An hour too long, La La Land is an atypical musical playing on the audience’s nostalgia for the classic musical.  This homage to Hollywood’s musical glory days is quite ingenious, and the meta statements about it works well to address the elephant in the room.  Seb (Gosling) discussing his girlfriend Mia’s (Stone) one woman play with her wondering if it’s too nostalgic, and saying to fuck the audience if they don’t like it, is one of the best self-referential jokes of the film.  And it’s the truest words spoken – it doesn’t matter if I like this film or not, the piece of art director Damien Chazelle has created here has its own merit whether I judge it worthy or not.  And yes, it is worthy – it’s just not for me.

To get the most enjoyment out of this film, you have to have seen, and preferably been a fan of, old Hollywood musicals – think Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, etc.  This is how I start off on the wrong foot with La La Land, not ever having seen anything starring Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers.  But I am a big Judy Garland fan!  Nonetheless, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are certainly not Fred and Ginger, barely able to hold a melody or put one foot in front of the other in the dance routines.  Shouldn’t a musical star actors with musical ability?  That’s my argument as I struggled through every single musical number.  To play devil’s advocate, I also see a reason for casting actors rather than entertainers in these roles.  That is because this film is really a romcom homage to musicals and not a musical in itself – I can’t remember one of the songs or melodies from this film, even the one that played a hundred times over.

The reason I can see for such casting choices is that actors can bring more of a realism to these characters and focus on the romantic relationship between them rather than the song and dance.  As La La Land‘s romcom heart is a more realistic examination of how even a loving relationship can fail when the two involved don’t want the same things, then why shouldn’t the singing and dancing be naturalistic rather than glossy old Hollywood style?  If this is indeed the reason behind the casting choices of La La Land, then I must give credit to Chazelle’s attempt at the metaphor.  It works well and it’s overt, but when a musical is over two hours long, it becomes outright grating.  I’d much rather have stars who can sing and dance but also act and bring that emotional heart.  Hire a great singer/dancer and ask him/her to tone it down for the performance rather than hire actors who feel as though they are acting the parts of musical stars throughout a film that is marketed as a musical and not just an homage to them.

John Legend’s starring turn in this film has the opposite problem – the man can sing, but his acting is flat.  Yet, I enjoyed his musical numbers the most because when listening to music, it’s nice to hear tonality in the singer’s voice.  He offered some respite to the otherwise monotonous whining of the other songs.  And somehow he has more chemistry onscreen by himself than Gosling and Stone do as a couple.  I’m aware that this is their second film together as romantic interests, but they have no chemistry together.  Independently I find Gosling charming, especially in his latest film The Nice Guys.  With Emma Stone, I feel the need to feed her a sandwich and have been extremely put off by her since her complete miscast as Colin Firth’s love interest in that God-awful Woody Allen film.  So, we’re already starting from a negative place with Emma Stone, but not holding that against her, she just doesn’t mesh with Gosling who has likely performed more passionate scenes looking into a mirror.  So if we’re not getting A-List singers/dancers I would have at least preferred a couple with more chemistry to give a sense of a true connection rather than the disconnect I feel from them as I wait for their inevitable breakup due to their passionless charisma.

Damien Chazelle is the true star of this film as his ideas are excellent and some of his execution quite new and interesting.  His first feature Whiplash is superior and La La Land, or any follow up for that matter, cannot hold a candle to it.  Whereas Whiplash uses its adrenaline and intense moments sparingly to truly grip and immerse the audience, La La Land is in full throttle as camera spins, bright colours and ridiculously loud audio all blare out of the cinema for over two hours non-stop.  It is overall too much for the senses, but there are some very interesting techniques and imagery used that feel fresh and nostalgic in equal measure.  His meta references and naturalistic portrayal of a relationship are the strong elements of this film, and the ideas depicted in the ending are glorious, albeit drawn out in unnecessary length.

Better music, better singing and dancing, moments of respite and better chemistry between the two romantic leads would have made this a musical to remember.  But as a romcom in the guise of a musical, there are some nice ideas buried underneath the atonal missteps of its stars.





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