Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Film Review: La La Land

Sexuality/Nudity Mature 
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

La La Land is almost a great movie.

 It is almost a classic.  I remember half-way through the filming thinking about how I would go out and buy the soundtrack and later on the Blu-ray.  But by the end I had no interest.

La La Land opens with a big, bold musical number that turns a traffic jam on the LA freeway into song and dance spectacular.  We are then introduced to our leads: Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress and current barista, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an old school jazz musician who balks at compromising his artistic integrity.  After a jilted first introduction, the two find a slow burning attraction that soon burns hot.  Not only do they inspire romance in each other, they inspire each others' artistic passions.  But both success and failure in these endeavors places strain on their relationship in ways that place it in jeopardy.

The most refreshing thing about La La Land is how much it feels like an old-school Hollywood musical.  The directing does not feel like the rapid-fire flash edits of a YouTube music video.  The camera holds for long dance numbers that are beautifully staged.  So much credit must be given to choreographer Mandy Moore (not singer/actress of the same name).  The dances have an exciting flair that is reminiscent of West Side Story.  And Stone/Gosling are superb in their dance steps.  They make these complex dances look effortless but feel emotionally resonant.

Director Damien Chazelle seems to have studied the musical classics and creates a beautiful, colorful vision of LA, a place where dreams can come true.  The production design lights up the eye.  This is a gorgeous movie to watch.  Chazelle uses great technical care when to hold the camera for the long shots and when to whip the camera around for a kinetic jolt.  And when he breaks from the smooth, old-school style, you can feel the rawness of it, especially when he uses the hand-held camera to show the rockiness of the relationship.  He is also able to capture visually those feelings of first hand-holding and discovery of love and the ache of what has been lost.

I am no fan of jazz, which is plays heavily into this movie.  But this film does what a good story will do with any esoteric art: it will help the audience experience it in a new way to find a new appreciation.  Not only are many of the songs excellent, but the musical themes are used incredibly effectively.  One theme is played instrumentally throughout the film and only towards the end are any lyrics attached to it.  And by then the emotional ties to the notes have a strong effect in heightening the impact of the lyrics.

As stated before both Stone and Gosling are terrific.  Stone is particularly good and should probably win an Oscar for her role.  Her Mia is always dealing with the layers of being an actor and stone shows us those layers constantly.  And while she constantly has to put on characters for her auditions and her roles, everything she does feels genuine.  She not only sings and dances with entertaining flourish, she uses those elements as opportunities to delve deeper into who Mia is.  While we get very little about each characters early life, much is hinted at and felt by their portrayals.  Gosling once again plays a character of effortless cool.  And his a mixture of the sensitive and stoic.  And while there are smaller roles played by JK Simmons and John Legend, this is clearly the Stone/Gosling show all the way.

The writing is charming, showing the battle of wits between Mia and Sebastian before their minds accept what their hearts feel.  But there is a thematic and structural problem with the film.  And though I hate making any reference to how a movie ends, I believe the the entire enjoyment of the film will depend on how you view the ending.  Some have said that the movie only works because of the ending.  Others like me say that the ending is problematic.  I shall try to be as vague as possible but...


The entire film is set up like a classic Hollywood musical.  And as the film progresses, there is nothing to indicate that this will not be the case until the end.  In such Hollywood musicals, the focus of the emotional investment is in the romantic relationship.  And I use the word "investment" because that is what you do with a good story: you invest part of your emotional concern and hope in to get a rewarding cathartic return on the investment.  The deeper the investment, the bigger the return for which you hope.  This does not always mean that the story has a happy ending as you can see in movies like the aforementioned West Side Story.  But even in that tragedy, there is a sense of the romance surviving beyond the killing: a love stronger than death.

La La Land sets you up for a big investment and in the end comes up way short.  I finished the film feeling cheated.  And while there are some beautifully artistic elements in the last ten minutes of the film, all of the good will it had accrued in me was completely and utterly wasted.

Imagine going to a restaurant and eating a delicious and satisfying meal that delighted your throughout.  But then right before you finished you took a big gulp of milk only to find out too late that it was spoiled.  As good as the meal was before, that rancid taste ruins the memory of the meal.  The same is true of La La Land.

Ultimately the film feels like a tragedy.  I am perplexed by this obsession with creating excellent art and achieving career success in life if it means sacrificing the things that make life worth living.   I've always believed that art exists to help us experience real life in a better life.  But it seems almost an offense to God to sacrifice real life for the sake of art.   Chazelle explored these themes in his previous effort Whiplash, but he left it ambiguous enough to create a fruitful discussion.  But here, everything feels so wasteful.

I think the temptation to be edgy got the better of what could have been a movie that would be watched and loved for decades.

But La La Land, while filled with good elements, sacrifices excellence for edge.

3 out of 5 stars.


  1. My first impressions of the ending are that Seb and Mia would have led more fulfilling lives if they had found a way to better incorporate their art into their lives instead of chosen one over the other.

    1. Thinking back to it more, I suppose it's that they would have ended up together if Seb had given up his dream. Still, I don't think it's wrong for a movie to remind us that not all dreams are compatible. Besides, it's not entirely hopeless; Mia ended up getting married, if not to Seb.

  2. And I should have put a SPOILER WARNING^^