After seeing it all over my newsfeed, having read multiple positive reviews and finding out that yes, it was still in cinemas, I finally watched La La Land last week to see if it lived up to the hype. If I’m honest, although I recognise why it might have been Oscar-bait, I wasn’t blown away by it.
The plot is fairly simple; it follows a romance between struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) trying to make it big in LA and jazz musician Seb (Ryan Gosling) who wants to open his own club that plays pure jazz (rather than this new fusion stuff). I’ve somehow managed to avoid every Ryan Gosling movie to date but I like him in this – he definitely had some Old Hollywood charm – a little bit rough around the edges but ultimately a sweetheart. Mia’s character on the other hand didn’t stand out too much to me, however, there are moments where she is shown to be a strong and resilient person. It follows them through the course of a few seasons as they struggle to be successful both alone and together. But I don’t think the plot is really the point of this film, I’d say that the stylistic elements are definitely more noteworthy.
There were two themes that stood out to me: nostalgia (here specifically for Old Hollywood) and the idea that you shouldn’t give up on your dreams. The former theme is immediately obvious as the film opens with the word “CinemaScope” on screen, a reference to the lens that allowed shooting of widescreen movies in the ’50s and ’60s. The film’s throwbacks to Hollywood classics like Singin’ in the Rain came through very well and were well executed (especially the extended fantasy musical montage that takes place near the end of the film). In fact, at first, I didn’t know when the film was going to be set, and apart from the cars mainly, it is a pretty timeless setting.
For a musical, the songs are actually few and far between but they do feel more like a natural extension of the scene than many musicals I’ve seen. And the songs are a manageable length – Old Hollywood had the stamina for 5-7 minute songs, I do not! (Don’t get me wrong, I love me some musicals but my gosh, could they dance for a long time!) I liked Gosling’s singing voice, it suited his character. But Stone’s singing in this grated me for almost the entire movie bar parts of one song – “The Fools Who Dream”. Stone’s voice is raw and scratchy for the most part and while that might appeal to some, it took me right out of the musical element. I also don’t think it complimented Gosling’s when they were singing together. With Old Hollywood the actors were like Broadway performers – they needed to be a triple threat. They needed to be able to sing and dance and act. These actors are not Broadway performers and you can tell, especially when John Legend’s character, Keith, is shown singing on screen. When John Legend sang, my thoughts were “this is what a good singer sounds like”.
It was romantic without being cheesy; for example there is a scene where Seb and Mia are walking around after a party looking for their cars are parked. They come across a lovely view of LA which they agree is wasted on them and would be better suited for a couple. There’s a bit of singing (“A Lovely Night”), a little bit of tap-dancing and its cute without being saccharine or cliched.
I think what ultimately left me feeling unsatisfied with the film however was that it is very dreamlike. Scenes go black with no conclusion, the dialogue is not excessive and we speed through seasons quite quickly (at least initially). A lot of the film is about what isn’t said rather than what is said – it seems like a film that runs on feeling rather than a plot. While this works with some of the more surreal and fantastical sequences, I felt like the film was going to end at several points and indeed, when it did end, it didn’t feel conclusive.
When I’ve seen a good film, I can’t get it out of my head for ages, but it’s been about five days and I’m struggling to remember what I liked about it. It is really like a dream. Sorry La La Land, you didn’t live up to the hype.
(Spoiler-ish side note to the critics of Gosling’s character playing the “white saviour” of jazz music, I think that misses the point a little bit. While Seb is stuck in the past, Keith points out that the classic jazz icons that Seb wants to emulate were revolutionaries in their time and that it’s people like him, who are trying to stick to pure jazz, are killing the genre. Mia doesn’t like jazz to begin with, but she says she likes The Messengers – she may just be saying this to appease Seb, she may have been converted, but she says she likes the music Seb is playing. Personally, I think their performance was portrayed in a positive light (it was a fun song, for sure). I will also point out that Keith and The Messengers have ethnically diverse performers who are innovating jazz and are far more successful than Seb is. The issue that should be looked at is that Seb sells out for money by joining The Messengers and that’s not his version of success. That’s all.)