Published on January 9th, 2017 | by Craig Silliphant0
La La Land
La La Land is well constructed, but with weak songs and empty cipher characters, it’s ultimately surviving on overhype. Now watch it sweep award season.
It’s not La La Land’s fault that it was one of the most overhyped movies of last year. This happened to several films in 2016, perhaps because film writers and critics were yearning too hard for something to fill the vacuum of the mediocre year in movies. Perhaps not. Who can say? But La La Land, like Moonlight (a better movie than La La Land, by far) was hurt by some of the backlash of its own hype. Well, wait…La La Land itself wasn’t hurt — it just picked up a wheelbarrow full of Golden Globes, on what is most likely its sashay to Oscar glory. It was just my conception of the film that was damaged (something I’m sure no one associated with the film will lose any sleep over).
Damien Chazelle, who directed Whiplash, a film I enjoyed immensely, made this ode to the classic Hollywood style. It’s a film that manages to feel like a time capsule, but also refreshingly modern, ironic and innocent at the same time. The plot is a simple love story where a jazz pianist, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), attempts to woo an aspiring actress, Mia (Emma Stone).
One of the things I loved about Whiplash was just how alive it felt. From a technical perspective, the shots conveyed a universe of meaning, the sound design was crucial, and the editing was insane. Story-wise, while it had some bumps, Miles Teller and JK Simmons (who won an Oscar for his role) were kinetic as student and teacher entering into a bizarre and painful mentorship. Whiplash trumpeted Chazelle as a new talent to watch, someone who threw out the rulebook (making what is essentially a sports movie out of a story about creativity). La La Land doesn’t quite hit the same blistering sixteenth notes as Whiplash in that regard, but it’s definitely a thing of beauty to behold in many scenes. It’s bright, fun, beautiful, and well made.
Now that the arse kissing is out of the way, I had several problems, the biggest of which being that these characters were pretty much just ciphers. For most of the movie, they feel more like attributes than fleshed out people; he likes jazz and she likes the theatrical arts and that’s about it.
Gosling and Stone do shine brightly in the movie, which helps to dispel some of that. And there are some great scenes between them, coming together and falling apart. But I didn’t have enough of an emotional connection with the characters to really have deep stakes in their fate. The movie desperately wanted me to tear up by the end, but I just couldn’t find the empathy for these empty characters. I wanted to be a blubbering mess, but all I could muster was a shrug. I felt like a sociopath. But it’s not my fault. Or is that what all sociopaths say?
In terms of the music, I will be up front and note there are very few musicals that I like, so I acknowledge that bias before launching into that end of things. Though, I am a music writer too, so I don’t think my general opinion of musicals precludes me from commenting on the musical aspect of the film, if that makes sense. The bottom line was that, like the characters, the songs were mostly void of hooks and feeling, with the exception of the main theme, which I was humming when I got home from the theatre. But these are not songs that will be classics in a few years. There’s no ‘Summer Nights’ or ‘Singing in the Rain.’ The actors weren’t knocking the singing out of the park either — they were holding a tune and nothing beyond that (which I do respect more than using studio magic to make them soar).
The movie even sort of abandons the musical aspect for a while in the middle, making it feel a bit uneven on that front. That said, it never abandons the musicality; swinging jazz music permeates the film, and you’re not going to hear me complain much that they didn’t keep breaking into song to express their feelings.
I know there are a lot of people that did love this movie, so all the power to them. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it more without the hype going in, but even that fact can’t change the lack of character development or the weak songs. It will probably be a pretty forgettable movie for me in the grand scheme of things, but it was a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon. I will now sit back and prepare to watch my cynical opinion undermined as the movie triumphs through award season.