From the Director of the critically acclaimed and Oscar-winning film, Whiplash comes Damien Chazelle’s follow-up film La La Land, a personalized love letter to Hollywood and jazz music with a dash of realism about the movie industries volatile nature.
La La Land has been celebrated and praised unanimously for being a genre-breaking musical/drama/comedy/romance film with whispers of surrealism and notes of despair. With a plethora of Oscar nominations and Emma Stone taking the prize for her performance, there is no denying the success of this film. Under the ruse of a musical, the story takes us into the belly of the beast with an aspiring actress, Mia (Stone) and an accomplished but underachieving pianist, Sebastian (Gosling) who’s lives just so happen to cross. The film tells the story of their romance through a series of lovely song and dance numbers reminiscent of classical Hollywood and what starts as a fairytale romance suffers under the hands of success, each wanting success more than their relationship to work. Without admitting that its truly what they both want, Seb goes on tour with an old friend Keith (John Legend) and plays music he doesn’t like and Mia continues to go to auditions while trying to lift her one-woman show off the ground. Thus, their relationship doesn’t work out, but each one ultimately becomes very successful. Seb gets enough money from touring to open his own jazz bar and Mia becomes a famous actress. Just like that, eh? Easy.
There are some truly brilliant scenes in this film, scenes that stand up completely on their own without having to be part of a musical. There are moments that show the absolute despair that aspiring actors face daily, going to audition after audition only to be ignored or dismissed. The idea that there is always someone better waiting in the wings and that you are just one of a thousand people all reaching for the same goal. These moments are when Emma Stone shines brightest. Her odd, bug-eyed appearance makes her stand out in the crowd of polished, pretty clones. Her quirky nature and confidence constantly compromised by people who won’t give her a chance to show them what she’s capable of. Similarly, the final scene of the film, when Mia and Seb meet again after so many years being apart and the two of them replay their story but with the success of their relationship taking prominence over their careers allows for us to have a glimpse into how we wanted their story to play out. It looks really lovely and the pacing of the montage works so perfectly to wrap their stories up to make that final lingering glance between the two characters intense and electric, the spark is still there, flickering in the dark like the candles on the tables.
While the choreography of the first scene is impressive, the fact that this film is a musical passes me by completely, I just don’t see the point of it. I have no issue with musicals, Mary Poppins is one of my all-time favorite films, but for the purpose of telling this story, I just didn’t ‘get’ it. I think the issue being that the songs actually aren’t very good, they’re a bit boring and their choreography (except the first song) was also very boring. I enjoyed the scenes where Mia and Seb would sing together at the piano and I enjoyed the song Seb plays in his band with Keith but both of those songs make sense in the context of which they exist. Those songs could exist in the film without this being a musical. The conventions of the musical genre are conformed to for the first two numbers and then just kind of forgotten about for the rest of the film, where instead its just Mia and Seb floating around a planetarium or tap dancing on a road which just wears itself out really quickly. The final song that Mia sings when she is auditioning for a role in a film, ‘The Fools Who Dream’, is by far the most superior song of the film, not just because it’s a good song because it isn’t, but through the way in which Stone sings it. She sometimes even spits out the words, shouting the words or whispering the words. These infections in her performance demonstrate the deep-rooted passion and fire that is inside her, that she has been trying to show people since the beginning. It’s a really powerful moment. Then we fly forwards five years and she is married with children living in a nice big house because she is a super successful movie actress. Lazy.
La La Land has come under fire for gender and cultural representation, that there are no prominent characters that aren’t white and that jazz music itself is rooted in black culture. The fact that Sebastian fantasizes so much about staying true to what jazz always has been as a way of reviving the genre seems to come up short without having reference to the culture to which it was born from. Especially considering that the only black character in the film, Keith (Legend) is seen as leaving his jazz routes behind to create synthesized pop music only adds insult to injury. Similarly, while Emma Stone generated the most Oscar buzz, her character is very much discarded and left in the dust of Sebastian’s career. Suggesting that she isn’t in control of what is happening and that Seb is in the driver’s seat of their relationship, orchestrating their relationship and letting her get left behind. While this may be an intentional depiction of her character, it might have been more progressive to see the roles reversed somewhat, which leads to my final point, that this film is just so horribly self-indulgent in almost every way that sometimes it is unbearable.
Damien Chazelle made it very clear when he made Whiplash that he loves jazz music and is trying to start some kind of jazz revolution with his films. Both have included reference to Charlie Parker who is clearly Chazelle’s favorite and both of had main characters that are blindsided by their passion for jazz. Seb and Mia are both pretty unlikeable people because they are both so selfish, Seb in particular who seems to love jazz music more than anything else in his life. His apartment is a mess and his life is in tatters but it doesn’t matter because Charlie Parker died before the jazz movement even begun. It’s a tiresome narrative, we get it, you like jazz and you know lots about jazz and you want everyone else to appreciate what jazz music has done for music, but it just comes across as patronizing. Why make a musical about someone who likes jazz music without having jazz music at the very heart of each musical number? The scene that bothers me intensely is when Seb is teaching Mia about jazz. Mia isn’t interested in jazz music and that doesn’t make her inferior but somehow Chazelle makes it seem like she’s an uneducated music lover. Thank goodness Seb is there to show her the way, otherwise, all would be lost with her. Massive eye roll.
It’s a nice movie and incredibly technically competent, but I just don’t really get what it is trying to say. Is it saying that if you choose success of your career over your relationship you will still achieve your goals and meet other people and be happy? Or is it saying that it’s okay to sell out on your dreams to get rich? Or is it saying, more positively, that perseverance pays off? There are some interesting moments that depict the oversaturation of bright young things trying to make it in the movie industry but these are few and far between and whatever message Chazelle is trying to get across is overshadowed by bad characters and boring songs. Maybe he just wanted to make a musical? Or maybe he just wanted to make another movie as a vessel to tell the world about jazz music? Either way, it is very entertaining but falls short on story and character depth which can evoke a mild sense of tedium and annoyance for the film’s duration.
Want to take a trip to the ‘City of Stars’ with two of Hollywood’s hottest young actors? La La Land is premiering on HBO on September 16 at 8pm.
Not convinced? See if the trailer can help you decide.
As an HBO Watch writer since 2013, I have covered a wide variety of shows from Eastbound and Down to Game of Thrones. I am also a huge Stanley Kubrick enthusiast having written my undergraduate thesis on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Outside of the world of film and TV I am an avid baker and teach 16-18 year olds how to use cameras.