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‘La La Land’ (review)

Produced by Fred Berger, Gary Gilbert,
Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt
Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone,
John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt,
J. K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock


I love musicals!

One the stage or on the screen, it doesn’t matter.  I love the way they can take an ordinary walk down the street and express the extraordinariness of the moment in time.

I believe that is what La La Land was striving to achieve.

Unfortunately, it just missed the mark.

From the opening number to the finale, La La Land never achieves that magic that is associated with most film musicals.

I take my hat off to writer/director Damien Chazelle.  He embarked on an ambitious project.  It is a hard sell to make a traditional musical in an era of sound bites and YouTube.  It is obvious the film is a labor of love, and it is that love and passion that saves the film from being a mish-mash of Hollywood troupes.

Emma Stone is sweet as Mia, the dreamy-eyed barista who plugs away audition after audition, hoping for her big break.  Fate steps in and repeatedly throws Mia into the path of jaded-hipster-jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).

Eventually, the two pair up.  Mia supports Sebastian in his dream to own a “true” jazz club in LA.  Sebastian encourages Mia to quit her day job and pursue her dreams as an actress.

However, it is not long before the many challenges and temptations of Hollywood test our sweet couple’s resolve, both in their dreams and in each other.

It’s the perfect story for a Hollywood musical.  Unfortunately, I would have enjoyed the film far better if it hadn’t been a musical.  Neither Emma Stone or Ryan Gosling are strong singers.  This is made even more apparent when contrasted with Oscar/Grammy winner John Legend, who plays Keith, the lead singer of the band that Sebastian joins.  Legend’s powerful voice makes Stone and Gosling’s singing pale by comparison.

Perhaps it was Damien Chazelle’s intention to make his leads seem like the boy and girl next door.

Instead it just comes off as casting celebrities for ticket sales instead of casting for the role. It’s not the first time Hollywood has cast an actor for their draw or pretty looks.  However, if you wanted Emma Stone for her big green eyes that can turn glassy and tearful on command, and Ryan Gosling for his earnest far off gaze, then dub dub their singing parts with and actual singers. The whole time I was listening to Emma Stone singing, I was reminded of the scene in Singin’ in the Rain when the producers secretly dub the tuneless starlet Lina Lamont’s voice for the melodious Kathy Seldon.

While Stone and Gosling are not terrible dancers, they are not Dancers with a capital D, which is what I would expect from a singing and dancing musical. If you are going to use choreography that harkens back to Gene Kelly, you need to nail it.  The movement needs to be crisp, light, and look effortlessly nature.

Instead, the dance numbers featuring Stone and Gosling have the look of a really good high school production.  It not as if it’s not possible to capture that MGM big musical feeling in a modern production.  The Cohen Brothers’ Hail Caesar! captured the grandeur of a musical production and while turning it on it head for the humor of the scene.

It’s not to say La La Land wasn’t enjoyable.  The story between Mia and Sebastian is compelling.   The music outside of the “musical” numbers was outstanding.  Through Sebastian’s pursuit of opening a Jazz Club, the view is exposed to some truly great Jazz music, both the old great musicians and contemporary players.

Another area the filmed excelled was in it’s innovative camera work.  Through the camera, Chazelle found an exciting way to capture music and integrate it into the story.  The edit mimicked the jazz that was performed, creating a powerful representation of the music.

There is a moment in the film where Legend’s Keith talks about Jazz as dying because traditionalists hang on to the old way of playing instead of innovating. It’s through new interpretations that the music is made accessible to the younger generations. The same could be said for the modern musical.

Although flawed, it is good that La La Land was made.  It continues the legacy of the musical, keeping it alive for another generation.  I only wish that it had gone for broke and taken the risk of being an all-out, dazzling spectacle.

Being somewhere in between an indie film about Los Angeles and a Hollywood musical left me feeling wanting.


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