If there’s a movie people are talking about right now, it’s “La La Land.”
Ever since it debuted at the Venice Film Festival in August, people have been going ga-ga (La-La? Bad joke?) over the film. By the time it hit theaters nationwide this past December, the modern-day musical had garnered enough buzz to send the masses rushing to see what all the fuss was about.
On top of the dozens — if not hundreds — of gleaming reviews, “La La Land” casually picked up 11 BAFTA noms and a record-shattering seven (SEVEN!) Golden Globes. That was just January, if you want context.
In short, people really, really like this movie.
“La La Land” is a clear darling for the 2017 Academy Awards, with a nomination for Best Picture (and, in turn, Best Actor/Actress noms for Gosling and Stone) basically guaranteed at this point.
But does it really live up to the massive hype it’s generating?
My answer: It’s complicated.
Let’s start with the film’s most obvious problem, which is that neither Gosling nor Stone can sing. Pause to let that sink in for a second: The two romantic leads in a major musical motion picture can’t. actually. sing. Their performances were endearing and well-acted, and they always stayed on key, but that’s about the extent of the praise I can offer them.
Shouldn’t the characters in a musical should be, well, musical?
From the very first solo, both Gosling and Stone’s vocals are thin — barely there, even — and wobbly, as if they both know how far outside their comfort zones they are. Choosing great actors who both happen to be totally inexperienced singers could have been intentional, but frankly, pausing every time either of them sang a note to wonder why the sound technicians couldn’t have sprinkled a little extra magic on their voices was highly distracting. Gosling and Stone have great chemistry and are generally a joy to watch on screen, but that doesn’t change the fact that characters in a musical should be, well, musical.
“La La Land” opens on what could arguably be the most authentically-LA scene there is: A freeway overpass jammed with rush-hour traffic. Our protagonists first meet in this traffic jam, also in the most authentically-LA way imaginable: With Seb (Ryan Gosling) honking angrily at Mia (Emma Stone) to get a move on and then speeding by while Mia throws him the finger. I thought the choice to open a musical about LA on a jammed highway was hilarious and refreshing, but for me, the film’s novelty ended there. The music is original to the movie, but it’s modeled after classic movie musicals from the 1930s to the 1960s, which made everything from the first number on feel dated and derivative.
The music isn’t the only aspect of “La La Land” that feels old fashioned. Everything about the film and the characters in it is a throwback, and purposefully so: From their clothes (can anyone please direct us to where we can buy Stone’s below-the-knee backless dresses?! Asking for a friend), to their dialogue, to their big dreams of making it in the big city. It’s magical and romantic in an endearingly gaudy way, and I’ll be the first to admit that the director succeeds in calling out to the romantic in all of us.
But there can be too much of a good thing, and this film is all about that. It romanticizes the past so much it fails to say anything about the present — or look toward the future.
In the middle of the film, Keith (John Legend) explains to Seb, who is a ~serious musician~ grudgingly playing for ’80s cover bands to make a buck, why being obsessed with classic, 20th-century jazz is holding him back as an artist. “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You’re holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future,” Legend says, in what is arguably the best line of the film.
At this point, I wanted to slap this stupid movie in the face. How could the film’s writer and director, Damien Chazelle, so acutely articulate the danger of clinging to the past and then fail, so brilliantly, at taking his own advice? “La La Land” follows old musical tropes down to the letter, as if it were adhering to a formula, attempting virtually nothing that hasn’t been seen or done before. As I watched I found myself wishing, practically reaching out with my hands toward the screen, for the movie to do something different and subvert old tropes — any tropes! — rather than celebrate them. Save for the final scene, which I won’t spoil, I was left pretty disappointed.
I know plenty of people will want to yell at me for saying this, and you’re welcome to do so in the comments section, but I find “Old Hollywood” in general to be overrated and not worth celebrating. I can enjoy “Singin’ in the Rain” as much as the next person, but do we really want to go back to pre-civil-rights-era America, when things were generally pretty freaking difficult for anyone who wasn’t a straight, white male? I wish “La La Land” would have at least addressed the sexist pitfalls of old musicals and done something new and exciting with Stone’s character. If not an elaborate feminist update, then at least a fully-fleshed-out female character with more than one or two lines of backstory.
Instead, we have Mia. She’s a woman who, even after two hours and eight minutes, we know surprisingly little about, and she doesn’t have the time to tell us about herself, even if she wanted to. Her adventures with Sebastian are told almost always in dialogue-free montages, so we hear painfully little from her.
But let’s talk about those dialogue-free montages for a second, because damn, are they beautifully shot. If there’s one thing I should praise Chazelle for, it’s knowing how to make LA look good. As Gosling and Stone wander Warner Bros. back lots and lounge below landmarks, each scene spells out a passionate love letter to both Los Angeles and the movie industry, which, sometimes, are so entwined they become one and the same.
Maybe that’s why the movie swept the Golden Globes and is sure to do the same at the Oscars — not because it’s revolutionary, but because Hollywood is infatuated with the rose-tinted version of itself Chazelle provides.
So, no, I don’t believe “La La Land” is worth the hype. To me, it’s a well-made, sufficiently charming musical threatening to steal the spotlight — and Oscar wins — from more daring and socially-important films (i.e. Moonlight, Fences, Lion, etc;) that deserve it more.