The issues with LA LA LAND (2016)

As enchanting as La La Land is (and wants to be), it left me a little disenchanted overall.

The film mixes old-time Hollywood style into a modern day setting, complete with musical numbers on a gridlocked L.A. highway and scenic Hollywood Hills’ locales. I’ve read pieces saying it’s a love-letter to Los Angeles, but that’s romanticizing a fairly mundane story into something it’s not. At the heart of the story is sacrifice and all the things you have to give up to achieve your dreams, as much as I hate using that word.

Because, really, this movie is a dreamers fantasy. The main characters, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), have aspirations of success within their respective art-forms: Mia wants to be an actress and Sebastian wants to be a jazz musician/club owner. Damien Chazelle’s love of jazz music is most notably at the forefront of the story, as it was in his previous film, Whiplash. Through musical numbers and chance encounters, the film tells the story of these two dreamers who press each other to….well, achieve their dreams.

That’s one problem with the film. It’s a retread of many other stories about Hollywood dreams, stories that were better told and with more impressive musicality.

The benchmark for stories like this is pure classic Broadway, such as 42nd Street. Where La La Land fails is when it’s a classic narrative posing as a musical, and when it’s a musical posing as a classic narrative. It could have been successful at being either one of these things, it’s just not successful being both. The movie mixes film techniques, such as craning cameras, widescreen lenses and single-take shots with stage production methods, like fixed-point lighting and painted backdrops, but to what avail? What we’re seeing is neither fully Broadway nor fully Hollywood.

So many scenes are lit to make the film seem like a stage play, especially during dance numbers, which don’t strike me as a snug fit for the story. Whipping and craning camerawork are employed, especially during the meandering but mostly pointless opening number, in an attempt to create some kind of kinetic energy. But the story being told doesn’t merit this device. It is’t a peppy, toe-tapping, Hairspray kind of a musical. I respect the minimal editorial cuts for the sheer skill and degree of difficulty, but I don’t think it aided the type of musical numbers they wrote and choreographed for the film.

After all, what makes film unique compared to a stage production? It can capture a world you can’t present on the stage. Film doesn’t need back-drops and movable sets to create an environment for the audience like a stage play does. It can take real life and make it as magical as they want. So how is it possible that La La Land gets away with using these elements of live theater? The luxury of editorial authorship is king in the cinema, whereas a stage production has to drop the curtain to edit.

lala-land

Take the above image as an example. From the still (the main publicity still from the film) we get a sense of what the film wants to be: a fun, whimsical tale that sits atop the L.A. skyline. But look at that image closely and scan the individual parts. The actors are being lit by an enormous white light, far too bright to be a simple street light or the moon, especially considering there’s a dusk light creeping up in the back of the frame. Also, the green-screen addition of the L.A. lights is far too obvious. When you see this scene in the movie you can tell that this street is not a real location and the city behind them is a green-screen. Why does this image (and scene) need to look so fake?

Listen, I understand that it’s probably just me, but elements like those are what take me out of the movie.

And for the record, I love musicals, both stage and screen presentations. So there is no bias here.

The film tries to tell a Los Angeles story, a place where art and culture are around every corner, but they staged it like a Broadway play. So where is the love-letter to L.A. vibe coming from? It celebrates a lifestyle, but certainly not the locale.

All that being said, the two leads are great together (especially Emma Stone) and the film tells multiple love stories in a mostly visual way. Chazelle deftly uses his camera to carry us through the emotions of two artists trying to mold their lives into something for themselves and each other. He paints a picture of old Hollywood set in a modern age, complete with eco-friendly cars and movie back-lot coffee shops.

On a thematic level, the idea of sacrifice and leaving behind one dream to forge another is acutely realistic for an artist. Many times a personal passion is all encompassing, forcing us to choose a path. For a city rich in artistry and artists, I’m sure that’s more true than any other place in the world.

La La Land is a good film with a cliched story and some visual panache. It jams several elements of things I truly love (music and movies) into a film that didn’t honor either of them properly. Thankfully, the characters keep you engaged and are performed so well you invest in them. In one way it prevails, in the other it doesn’t. I wish I liked it more.

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