La La Land (2016) lacks that little something extra
|Photo Credit: La La Land / Summit Entertainment|
Set against the vast landscape of Los Angeles, Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress working on the Warner Bros. lot serving as a barista to film stars. Every chance she has the striving starlet heads out to an audition and faces the grueling cycle of rejection and perseverance. When she meets Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist, they grapple with getting by and pushing each other forward.
Straight out of the gate, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are a charming duet. Having worked together in two films before, they share an undeniable camaraderie that translates to the big screen. Together and separately, they speak so much to the struggle and glory of abandoning a day job when everything they do may be in pursuit of their dream. Their characters' relationship adds a gradual weight of questioning themselves and each other. Dancing and singing, loving and fighting, they create relatable characters and deliver earnest performances.
Another delightful and unexpected character is Los Angeles. Every location like Mia's apartment or Seb's bar is more than a backdrop; it teems with energy, hope, validation, success, failure. Efforts by the costume, cinematography, and music make the city absolutely electric. Between brushes with celebrities, old landmarks tarnished and celebrated by modernity, and the cast's trepidation and excitement to put themselves out there over and over again, there's so much life bursting beneath Hollywood Hills. California dreaming may be the setting here, but it also gives everyone a new chance to think of their own little corner of the world and how it gleams with ambition and longing.
You've got the glory, you gotta take the little heartaches that go with it. - Singing in the RainThough the acting is delightful and the story brims with touching highs and lows, critics' comparisons that this movie completely resurrects the musical genre once led by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, is a little misleading.
Chazelle's bittersweet championing of artists for La La Land is drastically different than his unabashed hit Whiplash, not just in style but also somewhat in quality. While the latter may not be considered an official musical, Chazelle's ability to express sacrifice and abuse between mentor and student through jazz with tight editing in an intense pace is masterful. Here, Chazelle channels 1950s Tinseltown but his attention to detail doesn't feel as sharp. The musical sequences start as imaginative but grow repetitive by just dropping a spotlight. Though the film references are neat for movie buffs, and it's totally impressive to create a modern musical with original songs instead of adapting another Broadway hit, some touches feel like an aesthetic choice; some seem deliberate, some seem random, and the mixture misses opportunities to flesh out the tone he's aiming for.
Unlike Michel Hazanavicius' vision with The Artist to recreate a silent film, Chazelle shines his attention much more on Sebastian's quest than MGM spectacles via Busby Berkley, Vincente Minelli, or the studio system in general. And this does a disservice to Mia whose journey becomes a little too befuddled by the audition-rejection machine. Her devotion to storytelling, an one-woman show, and admiration of film or its icons beyond the occasional Ingrid Bergman poster and takes a gradual backseat to all things jazz. This isn't to say that there aren't nods to Old Hollywood at all, just that her love of acting or movies or creating characters doesn't speak volumes the way I thought it could. What really blooms with nostalgia is Justin Hurwitz's animated score and how the production uses 'old' and 'new' film styles to share the character's struggles - even if it doesn't hit all the right notes.
Ultimately, the film's retro elements emulate the characters' expectations while reality is much more of a contemporary drama.
Mia and Sebastian's joy and pain spring about in whimsical declarations and somber melodies, a dance among the stars to whistled musings along a pier at sunset. Their hopes and doubts are illuminated with bold sets and vibrant costumes a la Singing In The Rain or American In Paris. When reality interjects with sacrifice, rejection, and facing failure, the movie tones down on those cinematic sensations. 'Cause the unfortunate drawback of our desires is that sometimes reality is nothing to sing about; people have to make ends meet or live up to their own expectations. Dreams lift us up, and reality can grind us down harshly. Both avenues are engaging, but it does feel like there is more drama than musical.
Much like the vintage film factory where average Joes and Janes toiled away to be in showbiz, La La Land draws on conflict and compromise of dreams. Life may not be as easy as it looks in the grand movies we lose ourselves in, but sometimes seeing it through Technicolor glasses goes a long way. Chazelle celebrates creatives with Stone and Gosling delivering buoyant and warm performances. Though Chazelle's musical-drama left me inspired and deeply contemplative, it's not as tightly constructed as his previous work. It does, however, leave goosebumps, butterflies, and a lasting impression to the fools who dream and the mess we make.