director: Damien Chazelle
writer: Damien Chazelle
starring: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
genre: Drama | Musical | Romance
released: 22 December 2016 (Greece), 25 December 2016 (USA), 26 December 2016 (Australia), 12 January 2017 (Germany)
This love letter to the Hollywood musical of old, wanted to transport us to another time and place where our emotions, passions and fantasies could be visualized, sung and danced, but didn't manage to quite hit that mark entirely. What it was missing was the extra element of actors who were able to not only act and dance, but also sing. In addition, having an over emphasis on musical set pieces (in general, but also early on) that if both didn't exist, would have made this otherwise heartwarming film into the prestigious golden goose everybody was touting it to be.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) find each other at varying low points in their careers to find a passion between them that may set their lives forward and dreams come true. This passion though could also be the catalyst to set them at a crossroads where their career over their relationship will have to be chosen.
Something gets ahold of young filmmakers and they try to impress audiences by taking us back to a style and execution of the past that may feel majestic and nostalgic, but so often gets muddled along the way. Damien Chazelle's previous film 'Whiplash' was an incredibly intense and attention grabbing drama that most will have not seen. However, it is a different story this time around due to the film's more glamorous characteristics. Naturally, because 'Whiplash' had such a sublime quality to it, you wouldn't think twice about the same not being so with his next work, and initially it did look like 'La La Land' would would have been that type of film. With a great cast, comfortable budget, nostalgic style and homage filmmaking that would thrill critics and the 'Hoyty-Toyty' Hollywood crowd. Alas, what we got wasn't this magnificent film that showcases the best of what Hollywood was and the wonders of the musical genre. Instead, it shows how you can get too caught up in your own craft and miss the point of why your making a film in the first place.
Which takes us straight to the point and say this film shouldn't have been a musical with the two leading actors that were chosen. Personally, I love them both and find them to be extremely talented while also having an exquisite chemistry with each other. However, they are not great singers. I will admit am no expert of the music arts, but I can understand when someone is having difficulty hitting low notes and when they should have been replaced by actors who can not only act and dance, but more importantly sing, such as actors Lea Michelle and Joseph Gordon Levitt. On the other hand, if the film was played straight (without musical numbers), then Gosling and Stone would have sufficed to say the least.
Additionally, what was up with opening sequence in the film? Truly, this film began in the worst of ways by being the most pompous, stuck up way to start a musical in existence. It's in your face, with no connection to the characters whatsoever or even them participating in the number. It ultimately showed its pointlessness later in the film. As their was no other musical number of general topic whatsoever in the film without Gosling and Stone being apart of it. After that the production was aware enough to align the film to their narrative, even though it at times still went a little too much into the clouds of la la land. But truth be told, it wasn't all that bad in terms of musical dance set pieces and style. The issue is more or less that the story itself was better than much of the musical elements in the film and a little more story and a little less musical wouldn't have hurt.
Specifically, Chazelle does have a good eye for the musical genre with the music that does transport you back to that time, with lyrics that are melancholic and romantic. While also sets that hearken back to the old studio days of production and the cinematography from the aspect ratio that is more widescreen as it was back then, with a color palette of vibrant colors as shot on film rather than digital and lighting that all help to bring us a little closer back to what was. Not to mention the tap dance numbers and lingo used in the film.
The problems though are as mentioned the stars whose singing abilities are sub par, the overt focus on song and dance numbers and the lack of an extra focus on the main story early on that maybe rushed the plot a bit when they both first fell in love. Which leads the film down a slippery slope where its still entertaining and admirable, but isn't the film we all were hoping or thought it to be. For example when both Mia and Sebastian start to fall in love, which is maybe the most romantic moment in the film and something you would expect at the end and happens around the second act. At that point, we barely had understood Emma Stone's character had a boyfriend and one of any importance (it was briefly mentioned though in the film). So with this whole big love gesture scene that happens, it isn't as impactful due to the time we have spent together with them (which is minimal) and for Emma Stone's character as their was no real emphasis to her love life. Thankfully though, the ending is another story and really hits home.
Furthermore, the filmmaking of the film from a directoral point of view in its framing, blocking and overall direction is almost impeccable. Chazelle's camera moves are great and I would love to see him dip his toes in other genres and preferably an action film of comic book nature or even a 'Star Wars solo' film. He really has a bright future ahead of him, but should keep his feet on the ground to avoid the issues made with this film. Some of which are his own (in being too flamboyant), with other issues maybe arising from the amount of praise 'Whiplash' received and false modesty from both colleagues and fans. But, Chazelle and filmmakers in general should never forget that audiences not only want to be impressed by one's talent and thrilled by the story to be told, but for things in a film also to make sense.
Don't let this film get to your head. It may have two beautiful actors on screen together, some very lovable moments of romance and cinematic set pieces that you would think would become iconic if the production as a whole was of a higher caliber and prestige. However, this could have never reached those heights of excellence. As you would have needed a filmmaker to be first self aware of what he was making, second not try too hard to impress the crowd he was selling it to and lastly not show a carelessness of a deep level with the creative decisions made that put style over substance, fame over skill and expectation over reality.