La La Land won the Golden Globe awards. Most of the reviews are positive but I’m going to side with the tone of more negative ones like this one from USA Today. The film is a mixed bag of virtues and liabilities that leaves you wanting something more. I’ll try to put my finger on exactly what that something is, as I feel part of it might be intentional.
The musical is largely an archaic form because it is, by its nature, romantic and idealistic. I mean romantic in more of a classical-music sense. What that means is that it is big, bold, colorful, pretentious. Modern musicals do exist. Moulin Rouge comes to mind. But note how Moulin Rouge, like Cabaret, shift the subjectmatter towards the prurient. It’s also a jukebox musical and not all originals. La La Land was conceived to draw more of a straight line to classic 1950s musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, but to somehow make them relevant for the 21st century.
At its core, La La Land has the structure of a Rom Com, but it’s rather light on comedy as the film has embraced the sort of post-post-post-modern emptiness that epitomizes modern life. To put it simply, the film doesn’t want to allow itself to have genuine fun. All the characters seem to be in need of prozac. This makes sense to a certain extent in its attempt to engender sympathy for the plight of the starving artist. But you begin to wonder why creatives persist at all if their lives are so genuinely miserable.
Emma Stone treats every audition she goes to like she’s going to root-canal. You wonder how she managed to get as far as she did if she finds it so impossible to submit herself to scrutiny by casting agents. Ryan Gosling leads an almost ridiculously martyr-like existence of being tortured for the sin of trying to play his own style of music. Perhaps the idea was to exaggerate their plight for the sake of comedy, but it comes across as more sadistic than comedy.
The best way to do a musical is to keep the songs coming at a regular clip. Few successful films had long gaps without songs. One of the few I can think of is Willy Wonka, which is really more of a quasi musical rather than a full-blown musical. The problem with La La Land is that the musical segments are the only moments that have any true fun to them. When the film lingers with straight drama, it is dreary and drags.
The way these visions coalesce into an alternate narrative at the end seems to suggest that the segments are there merely to symbolize the fantasies of the characters rather than the reality. The film plays better if viewed that way, but it also spins these fantasies in more of a negative light, as it tells us that no matter what we achieve in life, they will never be as good as our fantasies. And that’s true, but it’s a sad statement to make.
This, I think, is how the film is attempting to be modern and relevant, which is to never attempt to project a fantasy setting without being self-conscious that these are only unattainable fantasies and that reality is much more disappointing, the tip of the hat to modern cynicism.
My problem with this is that I feel people primarily want to see musicals for a sense of genuine UPLIFT. And I think this is why musicals have gravitated towards animated family films, because the audience is far more accepting of happy endings in family fare than they are with general live-action. Remember that this film sees fit to throw in some swearing, seemingly for no reason than to remind you that it is an adult film. If you were to remove the swearing, the film could almost be G-rated since there’s no nudity or overt sexuality.
But anyway, it’s this lack of UPLIFT, despite the emphasis on romance, which is why the film feels like so much of a downer.
This is what I would call a traditional romantic musical piece:
La La Land’s numbers, including the one inside Griffith Park observatory, simply do not hold a candle to this, and the chemistry between Gosling and Stone really never takes off.
Ryan Gosling comes across as a douche right from the first scene where he’s honking his horn. There’s simply a limited amount of goodwill the audience can extend to him when he seems to kind of stumble into the relationship almost by accident. Stone’s character seems to become interested in him just because the plot demands it rather than there being any genuine connection. His personality is so volatile I get the sense that if they had gotten married she’d wind up being battered by hime. Despite the ending of the film having him suddenly express regret over his behavior musically, it’s really too late at that point.
But really both leads are not entirely sympathic. Emma Stone’s character has a very mercenary attitude about relationships. She starts out with some “other guy” as a boyfriend and casually starts cheating on him and then somehow, off-camera, the old relationship just ends and the new one (with Gosling) begins. Gosling, likewise, seems unfazed with the knowledge she already has a boyfriend. Monogamy seems to have no value to either of them. There’s no interest on the part of the film to give this other guy any life at all, nor the man Stone’s character eventually marries and has children with. In this respect it reminds me of how cold the relationship between Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner was in Arrival, despite the fact that the two of them wind up getting married and having a daughter together (sorry, another spoiler).
This is, perhaps, reflective of the sorry state of affairs between the sexes in 2017 that women simply place generic “men” in the role of lover or husband (and father of children) rather than holding out for quality.
The film gives these other men zero opportunity to demonstrate they even have a pulse let alone a personality. They seem to appear out of nowhere almost like weeds during the spring. I feel there is a narcissistic angle to this as well, as the film doesn’t really want to give any other characters anything to do besides the leads. The film has extreme tunnel vision and I just didn’t feel these two characters were sympathetic enough to have earned it.
Where the film shines is mostly in the cinematography. Many scenes are shot entirely in (very smooth) steadicam as one continuous take. This is also extremely difficult for the actors to do when it may involves singing and dancing. These types of shots are very rare. Films like Goodfellas or Welles Touch of Evil did this as a stunt, but this film has more continuous shots than I’ve ever seen attempted before. So on that basis, it is a true tour-de-force and deserves accolades.
It’s just as an emotional experience, it felt like a real let down, reminding myself that there is a serious existential or spiritual void in modern culture. Perhaps that is the message of the movie, that live has become so empty that we can only yearn for nostalgic musical experiences, but never find true happiness, at least as long as we fixate only on career success instead of making necessary sacrifices for love.
I would like to give the film credit for making important statements like that, but by being willing to paint such flawed portraits of the leads, I found myself unable to identify with them enough to truly root for them, and the cast chemistry just didn’t work well enough for me.
It’s tempting to think that La La Land could open the door to a whole series of other modern musicals of its ilk. Instead I believe that the sweet spot will remain with family films, such as the live-action Beauty and the Beast that’s coming out soon, that is, if it isn’t oozing with Auto-tune.