Rating: B or 6.5 out of 10 cha-cha-chas!
Synopsis: Boy meets girl. Boy negs girl. Boy and girl fall in love. To music!
Musicals are my weakness. I will watch them happy or sad, good or bad, with a smile with a frown, right side up or upside down. Seriously, though. My parents started me off on Grease (I didn’t know Rizzo was referring to a condom), then the Sound of Music (those puppets!), and then when I was 7 or 8, mom thought I was mature enough to watch West Side Story- kind of backfired on her as all I wanted to sing was America. Even if I say I’m not a fan of a particular musical, chances are I know most of the words and there are things I really enjoy and details I remember. Like RENT.
WILL I LOSE MY DIGNITY? WILL SOMEONE CA-AIH-AIH-AIH-AIR!?
When I heard there was a full fledged MGM-style musical coming my way, I was excited. It had Emma Stone, who had done Broadway in Cabaret and I was like, “Sure, okay!” Then I heard the name Ryan Gosling and I got some major Russell Crowe vibes and was all, “But can he dance? And… SING?”
I walked out of the theater really liking La La Land! But despite feeling pretty good about it, I also had a nagging sense that it all felt… incomplete. I think a lot of that has to do with the abilities of the two stars and it unfortunately affected the movie’s overall potential.
So back to “But can he dance? And… SING?” The answer is no, and to say he can carry a tune is a far reach. Stone outshines Gosling in many ways, but barely sings above that trendy raspy whisper and when she does- it’s a little painful. Let it be known- neither are professional singers or dancers and maybe it’s my fault I had just watched Hairspray: Live! and Singin’ in the Rain the week before, but hey! I can’t let this slide when I know Joseph Gordon Levitt, Jon Groff, and Anna Kendrick are just around the corner, hanging out and waiting for Wicked to start production. Or when Amy Adams and Evan Rachel Wood sing some La La bars in the opening for the Golden Globes and John Legend gets up for the Oscars and I’m thinking, “It’s nice hearing the songs how they are meant to be sung.”
Don’t get the wrong idea: My enjoyment of cinema of the musical variety is not just solely based on the singing. I love Rosario Dawson as Mimi in Rent, even though I can smell the Autotune because she really embodies the character. Renee Zellweger was far from pitch-perfect in Chicago, but she really made it work for Roxie. I even like Mamma Mia! once in a while. But there’s some weird fog around La La Land that boasts Stone and Gosling as great singers and all around performers, and therefore La La Land as some perfect musical when they are so so far from all that. I read an interview that said Gosling’s and Stone’s imperfect singing were meant to make the movie more realistic. Seriously? Unless you break out into song to talk about your plans for the day or conduct meetings and people join in harmony, musicals aren’t realistic. At all! Musicals- especially those in the MGM vein- are cinema’s purest forms of escapism. A movie where people deal with traffic by dancing on cars, break into the Griffith Observatory without alarms going off, and freeze time to walk through a party is not realistic! Stop making excuses!
There are reasons Stone only has four lines in her first song and Gosling doesn’t sing for a good 45 minutes. There are two reasons why these actors aren’t in Another Day of Sun, a song clearly meant to be sung by the two main characters.
This all dictates how the rest of the movie is laid out, which for the most part avoids the singing and dancing abilities of Stone and Gosling and causes La La Land to fall short several times. Weirdly enough for a musical about music, it’s pretty inconsistent in the pacing of the do-re-mis and the numbers. It starts with a bang- seriously, the opening sequence gives Birdman a run for its money- has two more showstoppers, and then they get to Griffith Observatory, which is fun, and then… it all kind of fades away. After the two stars fall for each other after one quick tune (A Lovely Night) and then a longer song without any lyrics (Planetarium), music becomes a part of the dialogue rather than an actual tool to move the plot along.
It makes the entire story and the relationship between Mia and Sebastian quite superficial. In contrast to the excitement at the start, we are then treated to a montage showing the next few stages, failing to show us how these two fell in love other than the initial chemistry. As the relationship moves in and out, we don’t get to see much of that either. It’s almost like the writers had a few great ideas for the first 45 minutes, wanted a dance sequence at the end, and the rest of the movie was connecting the dots. Music stops moving the plot and character development forward and that’s what prevents it from being a true, really great musical. As a result, the relationship comes off as contrived, surface-level, and a tad forced, with Sebastian pulling off some obnoxious explaining of jazz (it doesn’t need him) and spectacular negging of Mia’s career (that also doesn’t need him). I got annoyed at Sebastian’s insistence, but I suppose it’s meant to come off as endearing and, uh, he sees her for her true self and believes in her? Nah. He just reminded me of a person who needs to be right all the time. Like one of those people whose claws come out when they hear, “Actually, I don’t think Pulp Fiction is Tarantino’s best movie.”
Once the music is limited to mentions in the script (a shame because the music itself is really very good), the movie gets slowwwwww. After a while, I was thinking, “Just get to the Gene Kelly dream sequence already!” And they did! (It was great! One of the reasons I walked out on such a high!)
I need to address City of Stars, which we get somewhere in the middle, because Oscar- I can do without it. City of Stars is like Something Good in the Sound of Music- it makes a point and it’s there, but it doesn’t really need to be. The chorus is somewhat memorable but it doesn’t really move things forward as the others do (I’m looking at you, Someone in the Crowd), or strike as particularly impressive musicality. It’s pretty easy to pick out the better songs and City of Stars is not one of them.
Yet despite all its flaws, I do find myself daydreaming to the non-Gosling driven songs and drawn to the old Hollywood nostalgia. And when it all comes together, it’s really outstanding. Pitch aside and at surface-level value, La La Land is pretty enjoyable for when I don’t want to think too hard and just appreciate visuals. There are some major standouts in technical work and choreography. The first few musical numbers are truly impressive, highlighting the staging and intricate camera work of the movie as the obvious tools in the movie. The colors and long takes are to die for and most of the music is just so catchy. I’ve listened to the soundtrack more than I would like to admit and I’ve even grown to really like A Lovely Night after Gosling’s part was done Crowe-ing it up.
I’m betting this will make an even better Broadway show and future Tony winner. I want to watch it again… just… fast forward some parts. A lot of parts. There are really good components here, a lot of scenes that can be improved upon, and luckily the world has those things that will make it better and (possibly) a truly great musical.
That being said… can we get Leslie Odom, Jr? PLEASE.