So yeah, I saw the movie La La Land this week.
You may have heard of it.
Before I start, I’m going to preface this by saying that, though young, I grew up with old musicals. When I was in the second grade I got a boxed set of all of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals for the next year. In the third grade, I got into West Side Story, White Christmas, and Singin’ in the Rain. I would dance along with Gene Kelly, sing with Bing Crosby, and cry with Natalie wood. As I grew older, I’ve been introduced to countless others ranging from Umbrellas of Cherbourg to Chicago to Doctor Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog and have loved them all.
Needless to say, I have a bit of a bias when it comes to musicals.
Still, while I don’t think the movie quite lived up to the hype(though really, what movie could?), I do believe it was a transcendent experience whether you like musicals or not.
If you aren’t already aware, La La Land is a modern musical with old school sensibilities about two dreamers in Los Angeles: actor Mia Donlan(Emma Stone) and pianist Sebastian Wilder(Ryan Gosling). It follows their relationship through the four seasons of the year. They meet, they’re mean, they meet again, he’s mean, they meet again, and start to fall in love. From there he comes to her work and they set up a date, one whichMia abandons her current boyfriend for. Over the evening they fall in love and the emotion takes them to the stars. The just add water recipe for onscreen romance!*
But wait there’s more!
Because it’s what comes after this first act(winter and spring) that’s getting all the hype.
While the first act is a confectionary sampler of the Hollywood Golden age musical, the second act takes the two characters into a realm that’s a little more somber, a little more Jacques Demy. Instead of the colorful production numbers featured in the first half, the songs are more somber or have a darker context and are less likely to have a big dance break(except for the last number).
The first part has the two leads pursuing their dreams romance and art while the second explores how those dreams clash with the real world in a way that’s nuanced and, largely thanks to the actors, incredibly emotional.
However, it’s the last number that’s the real sucker punch to the gut. Let’s just say it’s a fantastic, crazy montage carried by masterful storytellers and a talented cast, lent that extra ounce of emotion by a score laden with musical motifs that built up to that moment. It’s hard not to be moved by the sequence, even if the stuff that came before it is not really your thing.
The entire production team deserves an endless amount of praise for this movie. There are several one-shot takes, tiny background details, and narrative finagling that had to make all stages of this production an absolute Hades(I’m using instead of h**l). Seriously, I hope everyone gets a bonus or something for working on this film, because it is a technical miracle and, as a result, an absolute delight to watch and listen to.
Despite all of this gloriousness, the movie is not perfect. As a work of visual storytelling, La La Land is a masterpiece, but from a character and social awareness perspective, there are some big problems. The movie mostly focuses on the two leads- in fact, I can’t really think of a character beside them having more than three to four scenes in the film unless they were a backup musician- who are largely archetypal and mostly sold by the actors. This isn’t necessarily problematic, but it sticks out in a film that treats almost everything else with such nuance.
Mia has very little background(she’s from boulder city, dropped out her second year at college, likes classic films, her aunt is a big inspiration to her). Anything else we know or like about her is from knowing and liking Emma Stone on screen. While the scenes where she’s auditioning are hilarious, we don’t get much else. She does a one-woman show that we see her write, produce, and advertise amongst other tasks. Still, when she does her show, we don’t see any of it. When she goes home, we see her sitting at a table with one her parents at one point and it’s hilariously obvious that they’re just sitting there waiting for the next cue, not speaking or working on anything or eating like one would expect parents to. Still, better to have Emma Stone’s personality than Sebastian’s.
Sebastian’s purist obsession with jazz sounds more like a bundle of cliches than someone an actual interest in the genre. Also, I find it funny that a musical that’s essentially ‘saving’ the movie musical by mixing the old and new takes the side of a purist who’s against that very sort of evolution. If it weren’t for his undeniable talent playing the piano and Ryan Gosling’s natural charm, he’d come off as a pompous a**hole. Being frequently describe as a pain-in-the-a** to work with because you’re an amateur musician who only wants to play one kind of music is ridiculous and really shouldn’t be romanticized.
Not wholly separate from this, others have complained about the movie being racist or at least not representative of the population of LA, mainly citing how Sebastion(a white man) wants to be a savior of jazz(a primarily African American type of music) and how the only black character(Keith, played by John Legend) is villainized for wanted to move the genre into the 21st century. To the first accusation, Sebastion’s entire obsession with jazz is problematic, race implications included.
As for the second, while I understand the concerns, I think it’s not really a race thing and more of a there aren’t that many speaking roles outside of the leads. The featured performers in the production numbers are diverse by race and gender(I can’t speak for sexual orientation). Outside of this, there are maybe 5 roles with any decent amount of screen time and at least one is related to one of the white leads. What would’ve been great(and would’ve solved most of the complaints) is if an African-American had played Sebastian, but that’s a different discussion.
Needless to say, this is a fantastic film that you should see if you can. Just don’t go digging too deeply.
The Short version:
La La Land is a brilliant, if imperfect, film that manages to be both an escapist and an emotional whirlwind.
What do you think? Agree or disagree? Whether you liked it or not, any bets on how soon there are talks about a Broadway adaptation?
Leave an answer in the comments.