“La La Land”
Directed by Damien Chazelle
It’s been a while (decades?) since a Hollywood film attempted to showcase a Studio-era romance via the way we experience it in our heads. Every new relationship feels like it should be accompanied by a song-and-dance routine. In the indie world we’ve had several of these, the best of which are “Once”, or the incredible dance sequence which accompanies “Drive It Like You Stole It” from this year’s much more consistent musical, “Sing Street”. That excitement is, for the most part, what director and writer, Damian Chazelle, is going for in “La La Land”. But, if I’m to be honest (and I have a feeling I’m sitting on a very lonely island here) it doesn’t quite reach those heights. It has some wonderful, even incredible, moments. But as a whole? It is overlong. The music is repetitious. It loves itself. The music is repetitious. The dance numbers don’t feel organic at all. And did I mention the music is repetitious?
But one thing that is NOT the problem are the performances – and the delivery of the non-musical aspects of the script. Emma Stone, who I’ve never been a big fan of, is spectacular here. Full disclosure, I’m a veteran pro actor of 30-plus years, so my connection to her character’s struggles as an actress in Hollywood may be more personal than yours. But I found her to be heartbreaking, real and vibrant in her relation to her career. Not easy for someone whose pretty much been a star since she was barely out of adolescence. And there is a beautifully conceived scene towards the end of the film- a scene all artists can relate – where her self-doubt is so well-played, it caused me to silently sob in my seat. Bravo.
Ryan Gosling is not as successful in trying to pull off the earnest struggles of a broke musician (I’ve gone through that as well). Ever since his note-perfect and sizzling performance in “Drive”, I get the feeling he’s bought in to his own hype. As a result, he always seems to play the movie star…delivering lazy performances…playing the schtick instead of the emotion. Much of that remains here, but there are moments where we see that other, connected Gosling. However, he is very successful in making the romance of the movie work – and without that, it’d REALLY be a snoozefest. And while they both pull off the musical numbers just fine, neither are going to be on the Great White Way any time soon.
But “La La Land” REALLY wants to be an old-timey musical. And, unfortunately, neither of the leads are well-trained enough to pull off the Astaire-Rogers production numbers Chazelle is trying to emulate. And the dance numbers feel utterly shoe-horned to fit. They just go on and on, for no reason, other than to remind us we’re watching a “MUSICAL”. So instead of furthering the romance, these long interludes stop it cold. They feel like a director’s imprimatur – an imprint that really wants to show you how clever he is – rather than an earnest moment informed by his wonderful script.
And then there is its length. It is at least twenty minutes too long. The second act takes an eternity…and when we finally get to the third act, there is a ten-minute “Red Shoes”-like mini-film that is as exhausting as it is beautiful. Had the second act been shorter, that number would have been breathtaking – especially as the payoff is INCREDIBLY powerful. Instead, for me, anyway, it just felt like more slog to get through…no matter the payoff.
The music, however, repetitious as it is, is very, very good. Justin Hurwitz’ score and Benj Pasek & Justin Paul’s lyrics are quite beautiful, evoking time and place and emotion in lockstep with the script. But the themes aren’t plentiful enough in their variety, so you’re stuck listening to the same themes over and over again, both in small touching moments and in those giant production sequences, which, again, either dazzle you or throw you out of the story. Put me in the latter category.
A standing ovation is due Linus Sandgren (cinematographer) and David Wasco (production designer). This is a BEAUTIFUL film. Chazelle’s vision could not have been more artfully executed. Just stunning and exciting.
You should see “La La Land”. My complaints may ring true with you, or they may not (probably not – given the high percentage of glowing reviews and the massive hype behind it). The film will, in some areas, make you laugh out loud or empty a tissue box (especially Ms. Stone’s performance). But, I can’t help but wonder if the buzz is more about how nostalgic…or rare…the experience of musical theater conventions are in a Hollywood film. It certainly evokes that era, but it’s much too aware of its own efforts to truly succeed. I so wanted to love it. And, though I may think of it more fondly as time goes by, for now, color me disappointed. In the meantime, I’ll be over here popping my copy of “Sing Street” in to the player…again…trying to answer “The Riddle of the Model”.
Written on 12/19/2016