After breaking records at the Golden Globes with an astonishing seven awards including Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Score; Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is one of the most lauded films of the year thus far. However, having received critique for its lack of diversity in its casting (given that its narrative centres around the jazz genre), as well as bold statements from both its cast and director about the film’s revitalisation of the movie-musical genre, it remains divided in its reception.
Following in the footsteps of Chazelle’s debut feature Whiplash (2014), La La Land is distinctive in its centralising and alignment of music and obsession within its narrative. The difference here is that the latter’s pairing of these themes is shown within the scope of a love-story, in which we see Seb (Ryan Gosling) and Mia’s (Emma Stone) differing but mutual obsessions woven together in a predictably star-crossed fashion. Distancing itself further from it’s predecessor, La La Land also brands itself as a movie-musical; with a slew of sing-songs and choreographed dance routines attempting to drive this label home at every turn.
Despite its earnest attempts to emulate the late-great musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Era, it’s precisely in this aspect that much of the film’s criticism can be drawn. For example, the casting of a non-singing and non-dancing pair in the roles of singing and dancing protagonists undercuts any attempt by Chazelle to create the “brazenly uncommercial” film he no doubt believed he was directing, instead resulting in a thinly veiled use of name recognition to sell theatre tickets. This becomes especially apparent bearing in mind Emma Stone’s past appearance in Cabaret on Broadway, which was met with reviews that commented more on her ability to ‘act her way out of tight parts’ rather than her singing prowess.
While this lack of musical ability can be argued to be an important part of La La Land‘s attempts to showcase the struggles that accompany struggling actors and musicians in Los Angeles, it ultimately stunts the film’s chances of truly establishing itself as a homage to MGM musicals in its onslaught of flat harmonies and bum notes that feel forced alongside their pointed references to Classic Hollywood. Even these borrowings from Hollywood’s Golden Age come across more forced than organic; most ostensibly with an impromptu trip to the Griffith Observatory à la Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) turning into a silhouetted rehashing of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ routine from The Bandwagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953) that appears more of a contrived effort to disguise the direct recycling of iconic movie-musical moments as ‘modernisation’ than anything else.
Muddied within these blatant references are the smaller, much more throwaway, references towards both old cinema and jazz music—with a script that sees both Stone and Gosling constantly wedging movie titles and jazz musicians into conversation with a fervour smacking of film/music snobbery, almost as if striving to form each protagonist into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or, in Gosling’s case, a Manic Pixie Dream Boy) counterpart for each other. In doing so, La La Land creates for itself a pair of protagonists whose relationship is as frenetic as it is tumultuous, which in turn creates a distinctly uneven momentum in the film’s narrative: ultimately resulting in a serious lag, which draws more attention towards its short-comings.
Furthermore, in creating these Manic Pixie Dream characters La La Land lays bare a number of incongruities that form the basis of its narrative. While one of these is the aforementioned casting of non-singing/dancing actors and actresses, perhaps the most problematic is the film’s attempts to pay homage to Old Hollywood while simultaneously commenting on modern film and music cultures. Probably the most explicit example of this is Gosling’s constant insistence that jazz is superior to modern music (and especially modern conceptions of jazz as “elevator music” etc) in its ability to be improvised, and thereby becoming ‘new’ with each performance. Where this becomes confused is in the innate necessity for reprisals within movie-musical culture, which results in the same song being replayed exactly the same way multiple times.
In fact, the only real saving grace for the narrative’s more cumbersome points is in the film’s moments of beautiful cinematography—courtesy of Linus Sandgren—with its omnipresent vibrancy of colour. However, these ‘moments’ are just that, with frequently overzealous camera movements that either become jarring in instances where the narrative becomes slow-paced, or cartoon-ish in attempting to match and emphasise the speed of the musical numbers.
All in all; La La Land is a well-meaning tribute to the movie-musicals of yore that misses many of its marks as it attempts to incorporate already well known and established motifs within the framework of a ‘modern’ musical, leaving the distinct aftertaste of “overrated” in its wake.