Is ‘La La Land’ Really Worth the Hype?

  • Copy by: Daryl Lindsey
  • Feature Image: Lionsgate / Summit Entertainment

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. 

Did you see “La La Land?” What were your thoughts?

  • Jill C

    Just got into a debate with my friends at brunch about this. Amen! Loved this article.

  • Lindsay

    My opinion is that people who don’t live in LA will never truly appreciate the film, the same way that those of us living outside Portland never appreciate Portlandia the way locals seem to. It’s just difficult to understand, so you miss all the subtle brilliance.

    Everything about the film was so quintessentially LA – the self-righteous head shake as Gosling speeds past Stone (seen that one 10,000 times), the deep sense of loneliness while being surrounded by millions, her car getting towed because of a tiny unnoticed No Parking sign (also seen that one 10,000 times). We learn very little about Stone because the movie isn’t about her, it’s about La La Land. And La La Land doesn’t care who she is. It doesn’t care who any of us are. It’s a one-sided romance that the people who live here obsess over every day.

    • Tressa Christofferson

      Totally agree. But I agree with Daryl too. Basically, if you don’t live in LA, you’re going to think it’s over-hyped. It won’t resonate. If you do live in LA, go see it!! You’ll think it’s fantastic

    • Tressa Christofferson

      Totally agree. But I agree with Daryl too. Basically, if you don’t live in LA, you’re going to think it’s over-hyped. It won’t resonate. If you do live in LA, go see it!! You’ll think it’s fantastic

    • Tara

      I don’t know, I lived in LA for 10 years, and I still don’t think it’s worth the hype. It had a few moments (the opening scene is magic), but imo not enough of them to warrant the buzz it’s gotten. That being said, I’m also okay that it’s getting that buzz because I’d love to see more modern-day movie musicals:)

    • I don’t live in LA – only spent a week there in my life, but it felt like being back, and I absolutely loved it! Loved your comment Lindsay!

  • Emma Katherine

    I both agree and disagree with this article (if one can do that). I disagree that the movie is not worth the hype simply because it is sort of the best example of an esacpist movie that I’ve seen all year, and lets you forget about things and just be super happy for a few hours.

    I agree however, that its not worth the hype, mainly for the acting. Its a good movie, but not the best I’ve seen this year, but I will be ok with it winning some oscars (which it surely will). But the lead actors are just not that great in the movie. The film is like 50% montages anyways, and the characters are not very strong, so its probably not the actors at fault here, but yea…the performances are just not worth the hype/nominations they are getting.

    All that being said, I’ve still recommend this movie to everyone, and I still will because it just made me happy.

  • Kaitlyn McQuin

    This perhaps will contain a spoiler!

    Oh my, I’d have to strongly disagree with the majority of this article, and I think that’s a-okay!

    First, I loved that both leads didn’t have classically trained voices. It was raw, not overly polished, and felt “real,” as opposed to watching two beautiful humans dance, act, and sing flawlessly. It allowed them to remain human, even onscreen. Ryan Gosling took piano lessons specifically for this role, as he should have seeing that his character is a pianist, so I think that qualifies him as “musical”.

    I don’t live in LA, and I definitely don’t think it’s overhyped. It’s a feel-good film that gives you hope and nurtures the chasing of dreams, and it’s a wonderful reprieve (mostly) from the world today.

    Also, while this film was a nod to old Hollywood, it wasn’t set in the 30s, 40s, and so on. It’s set in the present day. I don’t remember my “This is sexist” radar going off, and it’s strong. With that being said, you don’t think Emma Stone deciding to forgo love and pursue HER dream isn’t a victory for women? I do. I think it’s wonderful that she did what she wanted.

    Overall, I loved the film.

    • Lauren Brendel

      Yes I agree! I live in Bozeman, Montana and it resonated with me. I moved here for dreams and hopes of my own which is what I loved about the movie. Our dreams and hopes change and things don’t always end up how we think yet that doesn’t mean the experiences we have aren’t beautiful and worth cherishing. I’ve never lived in LA (have lived in eight states and London) and I absolutely loved it.

      • Kaitlyn McQuin

        Exactly! It’s about the journey, right? But it’s also about how important it is to at least try. And what is life without dreams really? Such a good film, in my opinion!

  • logan104

    While I loved reading about the perspective of the author in the post, I admittedly disagree with a lot of it, but differences in opinion can be a good thing 🙂

    This article talks a lot about the tangible things from the movie, like the references to Old Hollywood and outfits and songs, but the things that made me love this film go further than the music or the acting or cinematography (as lovely as I thought they were).

    As a recent college graduate in a creative field, I felt Stone’s pain with every rejection or no, and I empathized as she and Gosling tried to navigate how to mix their dreams with their realities. If you’re any kind of dreamer, and God, I hope you are, this movie is a breath of fresh air in a world where no’s come hard and often.

    This movie was truly the most fun I’d had in a movie theater in a really, really long time, and I think that’s worth the hype!

  • Jessie Brotman

    Loved this article! I’m from L.A., and I have such a mixed relationship with this film. On one side, I was so happy to see L.A. (her landmarks, weather, lovable quirks) being celebrated, and I also loved the nod to and praise of those who pursue their dreams. And I have to admit, though while I watched the movie I didn’t think it was anything special, I haven’t been able to stop listening to the soundtrack since. On the other hand, I do agree that the characters weren’t well-rounded enough, the story was lacking, and the movie as a whole was just not that inventive. Overall, I’d enjoy it and recommend it despite its flaws.

  • Tara

    Thank you! My thoughts exactly!

  • Jasmine Smith

    Are you aware Gossling got his start in the Mickey Mouse club? Furthermore, he was the lead singer in a band for years with a large cult following. When you say he is an inexperienced vocalist, you obviously didn’t do your research. If getting your start by singing on MMC and in a band doesn’t count as “experience”, I don’t know what does.

  • I actually really loved La La Land and for me, the movie lived up to the hype. Granted, I love the old hollywood nostalgia that this film has and I liked the way that the film still felt relevant and modern despite having been influenced older musicals.

    I disagree about the singing. I really liked how raw it sounded because it felt very “real” compared to the polished, slick, songs and dances of old hollywood musicals. The fact that Ryan and Emma sang their duet live (opposed to lip syncing) and that Emma sang her solo live as well adds a lot of charm and character to the movie.

    If nothing else, I thought that this was probably the best directed film I’ve seen in a while. The fact that the opening number was practically one long take and that the big dance number was also one take is incredible. If anyone reading this hasn’t seen the film yet, I’d highly recommend it!
    -Sisi
    http://www.modernbeautygirl.com

  • As a life-long musical fan, I could not disagree more; I feel like musicals need to go back to what they used to be, before someone decided it is a perfect cash-grabber for political or other satire. Not everything that is new is better. Some formulas used to work for a reason. But if you don’t like old musicals, then well, it’s a bit like me going to see a western and complaining that it is just so much like a western 😉
    As for the leads that cannot sing – they had really easy songs to go through. I mean it. I cannot sing that well and I can hit the note in every single one of them. It reminded me a bit of the good old tragedy of Les Mis (the film). Les Mis has very hard songs. Very. The only person who could carry it ended up being a Broadway star… La La Land does not need musical actors, as the songs are very straightforward. Neither Emma nor Ryan could sing in Les Mis successfully, but they are enough for La La Land for sure 🙂
    And I am SO glad the story is simple. Very few musicals can carry an engaging, complicated, deep story – it is not a media to do that. For some reason people love making Victor Hugo musicals and that would be as far as ‘smart’ musicals go. Most musicals are simple. They are there to make you smile, laugh, dance and sing. Not to make you think about the horrible and bad in the world 🙂

  • This puts in to words what I have been thinking. I went to La La Land expecting to see a modern musical set in twenty first century La. Instead I feel like, bar the technology this musical was lifted straight from the past. Emma Stone didn’t even get any witty, zingy one liners.

    It felt like a film with music strapped on rather than a musical, if that makes sense. And what you said about it failing to say anything new is true. I feel like the ending felt even more out of sync with the rest of the film as a result.

  • Honestly I loved the movie but I am also a huge fan of classic Hollywood films. It was an homage to those movies, to musicals, to jazz- all the things I love. And yes, there are many issues with Old Hollywood but I think what the film is truly about is the magic of the arts.

    I think if you love all of the above, you love the movie. Not liking Old Hollywood is going to kind of miss the entire point of the movie, so I get why you didn’t like it.

    Should it beat out other films for awards? I haven’t seen anything else (I’m a mom of 2 and this is the second time I’ve been out to the movie theater in a year, so have to wait for Netflix!) but I would guess that there are probably more deserving films. I loved La La Land but not sure it should be Best Picture or win the acting awards.

  • I totally and politely disagree. I think them not being able to sing is on purpose, one because Emma Stone can sing better than that and they didn’t let her do it. Belting it out would overshadow a lot of the cinematography, dancing, the dialogue, the story, the character development and have you ever seen an old Hollywood musical? They don’t belt it out! That’s what they are emulating, it’s not going to be like Les Miserables. I loved the style of the old hollywood story with updated twists like cellphone ringing in the middle of a dance number and the surrealism of the dance scenes. Also, without spoiling the ending, that was perfect. Their relationship with each other and their careers is quintessential Hollywood and that is why the story and the character development (and lack their of) is so on point. Do agree that John Legend had the best line.

    • And I haven’t lived in LA but I’ve visited and lived in NYC for a long time and am a TV producer so maybe it just speaks to me in that way.

  • Kayla Escher

    I think you missed the point of the movie, which was to transport us to the time when cinema was about fantasy, and being in La La Land. This was one movie that I watched and didn’t want it to end, it was beautifully done, and I think that the fact that they weren’t amazing singers made it more quirky and beautiful. It was a piece of art, and it was not trying to make a social commentary on sexism.

    I loved how it showcased LA, and I thought it was a musical that satisfied musical lovers, such as myself, but also those who don’t love musicals, like my husband. But I also appreciated that it’s not a fairytale, the ending had kind of a sad finish.

    Favorite movie of the year, hands down.

  • Melissa Thompson

    I didn’t get the hype at all. My friends and I were so disappointed at the end and we were scratching our heads trying to figure out what just happened. I love musicals, and I thought the movie would end up being “cute’ if anything, but I didn’t feel any chemistry between Gosling and Stone. It must be a movie only people in LA can appreciate. I was so utterly confused. Also, the characters are very one dimensional.

    • Mary Eastham

      I agree completely with you Melissa. If I had popped in to the movie alone, I would have left before the ending but I was with a great friend and her 11 year old daughter and her friend so I wanted to stay positive for them. As I’m reading all these comments, especially the ones about Ryan & Emma not being able to sing, I sadly can’t think of any young Hollywood actors who have those skills. My friend saw the movie three times and now loves it!!! It’ll be interesting to see what the director does next. I know one of his fave movies is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg with Catherine Deneuve (sp?) If you watch the trailer for that or the whole movie, LaLaLand makes a lot more sense…

  • Whitney M

    I really disagree with this article and find the analysis simplistic and surface level. While the writer is certainly entitled to her opinion, I hate to see a movie that champions artistic risks and struggle denigrated in such flippant fashion.

    The actor’s singing voices were intentional and the film is full of subverted old Hollywood musical tropes (“Lovely Night,” for one)…

    The tone of this article, and the lack of knowledge behind it, is very off-putting to me.

  • Anna

    I really liked the movie! I was a little disappointed with the vocals and I felt like the characters weren’t as complex as they could have been, but I wasn’t expecting this great-incredible-amazing-insert adjective here- movie when I walked into the theater. I was expecting a bit of throwback to the classic movie musicals and that’s what I got.

    Do I think it should win an Oscar? No. Do I think it’s a cute movie worth seeing? Yes.

  • KiCu

    >neither Gosling nor Stone can sing

    I didn’t think either voice was great, but I got the impression they were underselling themselves. Once they were singing together, they blended well and show they CAN sing, their voices are just a little weak alone. I think this was intentional, neither is meant to be a singer, Mia is an actress, Sebastian is a pianist.

    >which made everything from the first number on feel dated and derivative

    I thought the whole point of the movie was to be derivitive? It feels like a hug of nostaligia. In an uncertain world, where everyone is more stressed, anxious, busy, lonely, it was nice to have 2 hours that made you feel the way you did as a kid watching Singing in the Rain on a stormy weekend afternoon. So many movies these days are remakes or sequels.

    >She’s a woman who, even after two hours and eight minutes, we know surprisingly little about

    I don’t know if that matters. We know who she is now. The movie isn’t about her motivations and her back story. I often find it tiring when we watch someone on screen for an hour and a half and they suddenly have the character say “oh, my parents divorced/ I broke up with my last boyfriend badly/ I found out Santa isn’t real” and that’s apparently a massive revelation as to why they behave like they do. I liked that what we saw was a young woman who had a dream and was just working for it.

    >Her adventures with Sebastian are told almost always in dialogue-free montages, so we hear painfully little from her.

    I thought the movie did a great job of “showing not telling”. She did have a fair amoung of story- the story about her aut in Paris for example. But they showed us who she is. We saw her initally turn down going to a party and having to be persuaded (showing she was busy and not just keen to party), we saw her dancing in front of Sebastion at a party (she is unembarrassed to be goofy), we saw the pile of craft stuff she left in the living room (shows she’s hardworking and driven), we saw her run home to her parents when her show failed (she’s tired from working for so long).

    In general, I liked that Sebastian grew up and accepted that he was being pretentious believing in real jazz, and took the job in a slightly cheesy band to pay the bils- accepting that like nearly everyone has to earn money in order to pursue his dreams. I liked the Mia was given a family at the end which showed that “successful” woman don’t have to sacrifice their careers for a family or not have a family to have a good career.

    It wasn’t the greatest movie I’ve ever seen, I don’t think it was worth all the hype. But it was charming, fun and a nice movie to watch.

  • Shemayil Lail

    Well said!

  • Paloma Sanchez

    I totally agree with you. I believe the movie is overrated. Sure, LA is amazing; the music takes us to old Hollywood, and of places and romance we dream of having. But that’s it. It’s a normal movie, and I don’t understand the hype about it.

  • I saw it 3 days ago and had the same mixed feelings. I enjoed the views, the music (especially the piano pieces), but wasn’t really convinced by the love story itself. I would call it an “easy watch”. Rather recommendable.

  • ShanyaDiaz

    Having grown up in India where movie industry rotate around musicals a lot more than Hollywood I can say i’ve seen different versions of this movie a hundred times. Trust Hollywood to make an original movie. Movies like moonlight deserves it more if Oscar wants to set an example and not get confused with other award shows like MTV movie awards.

  • KB

    Thank you for clearing this up — I both loved this movie and was frustrated by it, and compared to other Best Picture nominees I’ve seen so far (Arrival, Hidden Figures, and Hell or High Water), it’s not the best of the year, in my opinion.

  • Amelia Thomas

    I’m so sick of seeing this article pop up on my news feed. YES, it is a movie filled with Hollywood cliches which is obvious to every person who actually pays attention. The movie is LITERALLY called “La La Land” which is a nickname for Hollywood.

    Whoever wrote this review didn’t do their homework. Maybe you shouldn’t write reviews on things you don’t even make an effort to learn about.

  • Priscilla Colón Marsh

    I totally agree with you. The movie was just ok for me. It was pretty, and I didn’t mind Stone and Gosling’s singing or dancing, but it’s not like the acting or even th music were so spectacular. I hated the ending, too. I remember when I was younger seeing “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” one of the movies that this is a tribute to, and hating IT. Mind you, I’m a person who loves musicals both on stage and screen, but this movie did not do it for me. Way overhyped.

  • Pensive

    One year from now, heck, one month from now, 99.9% of America won’t have seen – or won’t even care nor remember – that film which won “Best Picture” in 2016, Moonlight. I just can’t envision it being a “classic” film that one would get a “joy” from viewing years from now. No offense to that film or to those that loved it…but realistically? Moviegoers will more likely remember, even years from now, La La Land. They’ll remember magic, music and a time when Hollywood put a smile on our face. And if we want a reality check we can always check out CNN, PBS, NYT etc for free…

  • Dr. Golden Axe

    Crazy topic ! really It can start a war amongst friends!
    then they will need sipofwellness.com 🙂