“La La Land” is the city of meh
Welcome to Cinema Corner, where we look with a critical eye on movies that are considered the best in their genre. I’ll warn you now that the films in this column will be in for a thorough spoiling, so avert your eyes if you don’t any of the plots spoiled.
For the first volume, we’ll be examining the 2016 musical hit La La Land, which receives numerous awards around the world for numerous categories.
The film stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as Mia and Sebastian, respectively, and details the lives of the characters as they struggle to make a living in the city of Los Angeles, which takes the mantle of the “City of Stars” in the many of the movie’s musical numbers. Mia is a struggling actress who eventually finds purchase as both a playwright and accomplished actress by the end of the film.
Sebastian is a jazz musician who finds the traditions of the genre vanishing before his eyes in the ever-changing and experimenting atmosphere that modern music finds itself in. Sebastian wants nothing more than to own his own jazz club and play what he considers “real jazz”, which is jazz in the vein of classic musicians such as Louis Armstrong and his contemporaries. Amidst the two leading character’s pursuits of their respective dreams, they meet and a romance blossoms between them (albeit with a rocky start).
As is the Hollywood vogue these days, a happy ending eludes the two. Mia gets a movie gig that requires here to fly out to France for several months and Sebastian is reluctant to let her commit to a relationship that may affect her performance on the movie. He claims they will see what happens when she returns, and after a time skip of a few years we see Mia with a child and man who clearly isn’t Sebastian.
Mia and her unnamed husband go out on the town and eventually wander into a jazz club. Mia looks up and sees a sign bearing the name of the club: “Seb’s” and sure enough, Sebastian, now the owner of the club comes out on stage to announce the next set of music. As Sebastian speaks, he noticed Mia in the crowd and his demeanor immediately changes. Sebastian grows much quieter and takes a seat at the piano, playing the love theme he plays throughout the film.
Strap in, because this is where the film gets extremely conceptual. As Sebastian plays the love theme for a final time, the scene changes back to the night he and Mia “met” in the bar. Earlier in the movie, as Mia is complimenting his music, he dejectedly bumps past her without saying a word. Flashing forward, or perhaps backwards, to the same scene, Sebastian instead kisses her passionately and we then see the events of the film play out in quick succession, with every struggle and issue with Mia and Sebastian’s relationship being solved.
In this version, Sebastian goes with Mia to France, Sebastian becomes the father of Mia’s child, and everything works out wonderfully for the two lovers. We then return to the version of the film where Mia and Sebastian don’t end up together, and the film promptly ends.
The reason why I talk so much about the ending is because it’s the most unique part of the movie. To touch on a metaphysical aspect, the idea that there are two timelines, one in which Mia and Sebastian end up together, and one where they don’t, is an interesting one that isn’t explored very often in film.
That being said, it wasn’t explicitly stated that this was the objective of the sequence, and it may very well be a dream, which begs the question: Is not love always a dream? But I digress.
The most important part of any musical is naturally the music. Unfortunately, the music, instrumentation, and singing left a lot to be desired. The thematic riff that Sebastian often plays is basic, and overused. It does not stand as a motif, as a motif is often expanded upon and Sebastian’s singular riff is merely repeated ad nauseum without much variation or expansion.
This leads into a larger problem with the musical aspect: the singing. Though Emma Stone has been, Ryan Gosling is certainly not a Broadway musical singer, and he lacks the professional quality that trained musicians possess. He does his best, I’ll give him that, and he certainly sings better than I can, but it falls short of Broadway singers like Lin Manuel-Miranda and Josh Groban.
The plot of the movie has been called “instantly classic” by some, and I would posit that this is because the plot has been done to death similarly by Hollywood several times before this movie came along. Two struggling people fall in love, it looks hopeful, but is ultimately futile, (unless you count the dream sequence as an alternate reality).
Though it tries to draw on the pedigree of earlier Hollywood musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain but does not possess the endearing and humble quality that Singin’ in the Rain had. This film is clearly a product of modern Hollywood trying to capitalize on older ideas rather than on innovation, much like the subplot of Sebastian’s reluctance to join an experimental jazz group over a cliched love of tradition.
There were things this film does well, such as the acting, cinematography, and color grading.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are well respected actors (if not singers) and it clearly shows in the movie’s non-musical portions where they can shine as what they are best: actors. Stone delivers an excellent performance, no doubt drawing on personal experiences from earlier in her career, and Gosling has such a wide range of ability that he could likely play any role in any film well.
The cinematography is fluid and makes great use of angles, motion, and the ever-important rule of thirds throughout. The shots of the Los Angeles skyline and surrounding areas are beautiful and made even more vibrant by the excellent choices in color grading.
For the uninitiated, color grading is one of the subtlest, yet most important ways a film is influenced. Every film is color graded to an extent, with prominent examples being the grainy yellow tints of “Batman Begins,” or the desaturated and cold tones of space shown in “Interstellar.” This film provides a very saturated and almost technicolor look, which is one of the few ways it draws from Singin’ in the Rain well.
Reds are bright and pop for the eye, yellows look as vibrant as they do when spring is in full bloom, and the blues are extremely deep. The entire film is, from a coloring standpoint, something that the viewer’s eyes will take great pleasure in seeing.
Overall, this film has some good, but the good is largely outweighed by the poor music. The acting and production aspects of this film aren’t enough to save it from mediocrity, no matter how good they are. Perhaps the film would be much better if it discarded the attempts at music and was a traditional drama instead, which would let Stone and Gosling do what they do best: act.
In the end, I give this film two and a half thumbs out of five. It certainly wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but certainly didn’t live up to the hype either. For a better time, I recommend watching “The Greatest Showman” instead. It’s a musical that succeeds where this film fails and is genuinely a more fun watch.