La La Land Review


Updated 03/02/2017

Damien Chazelle, of Whiplash fame, returns with another pop at jazz with La La Land. This time, however, romance is the main theme of the day; can it deliver? Lee and Lawrence reviews.


One of La La Land’s more tenable real estate grabs, for audiences of 2017 at least, is in its linking of nostalgia as an off-shoot or subcategory of romance; for what is nostalgia but an idealised imagining of an imperfect emotional idea? How romantic, and so credit where credit is due, the theming scores big. Hollywood is romanticised reality and the “Golden/Late Golden Age” era imagery evokes that with sentimentality; jazz is an oft romanticised music form, especially the traditional/New Orleans stuff, and while most of the stuff in the soundtrack is really Swing Jazz and big orchestral off-brand movie pop, it all evokes a certain time and place and set of ideals; dancing is romanticised walking, etc, etc. Society’s collective nostalgia recalls these images and sounds and ideas, so it makes sense that our somewhat world-weary world will find hope in this modern musical.

Better still (for those actually interested in critiquing film as a work or intention of art, at least), it all ties together to form one neat romantic bundle, and an actual romance-romance forms the heart of the story, so that makes sense; jerky boy meets spirited, unshakeable girl and those two forces try to work out what love looks like in the real world. Elevated by towering musical numbers and fairy dream segments, spontaneous song collaborations and dance-offs, this is where La La Land shines. The musical elements form meta-commentary on the film’s world itself, standing in for any act too great to be shown in real terms, yet the film is ostensibly a realist’s story of a romance in try-hard Los Angeles, and here the movie makes a misstep.

In a film with such well-established potential to leap from the trivialities of real relationship drama, La La Land instead doubles down on the hardships of love in an unfeeling place where career progress equals validation and easy choices aren’t easy or obvious. It becomes something of a cautionary tale, one albeit with a fascinating finale that doubles down on nostalgia as a theme to explore the potential romance has to explore one’s missed opportunities even when they are firmly missed, but a cautionary tale it remains due to the staggering amount of lows we sit through and, unfortunately, it’s not one with a lot of warranted credence behind it.

Espousing sentimentality and nostalgia to propagate forward-thinking and realism works, it’s useful for imparting critical thinking to those who would not ordinarily be exposed to it, but only if you stick to it and actually say something worth saying. For example: why press jazz on an audience and characters through exposition and exposure as a music choice for the open-minded, but draw a line at contemporary jazz due to perceived lack of soul? Wouldn’t the romance of jazz in general be enough? Another: why equate realism with negativism? Why not have the characters realise their strength in collaboration and present that as your resolve if you’re just going to end them in just-marginally-below-fantasy lifestyles anyway? Why settle for bittersweet with your fantasy when you can just go fantasy?

This isn’t helped when the writing also dips into cynicism and short-sightedness too often to truly be either uplifting or benefit from the concept it has carved for itself, taking pop-shots at work-a-day jobs, the falsity of acting as a career and the fruitlessness of unfettered ambition, all to promote a resolve that doesn’t necessarily feel earned or warranted, promoting romance as the true lifestyle worth saving yet doing so while riding the idea that only certain shades of romance are worthy. This contradictory nature creates a full deficiency in the movie as it essentially tries to exploit its romance-pie and eat it too.

And so, the finished piece ultimately comes across as an aggravatingly shallow experience, one that doesn’t know what it wants to say but surely knows what it wants to look like, and who’s really going to complain there? The aesthetic elements are superb, the dancing and singing and acting and little character moments all build to an unshakeable base that makes it hard to stop watching even when the voice in your head quietly hates every characters as individuals and just wishes the movie would make good on its promise and create some honest-to-goodness, sincere, straight-played romance. If ever there were a movie that could get away with it, here was the movie. Instead, we dabble but never buy into romance wholesale, flirting with the possibilities but never showing us how it can be achieved, the only worthwhile thing this cautionary tale could tell us.

Still, mass audiences will eat it up, at least in the initial run before it loses its charm completely in the coming times. It’s a sappy but believable romance, completely and utterly sold by its stars and their undeniable chemistry, and the window dressing is as fine as the Hollywood standards that came before it. But it is just dressing; nostalgia is alluring like that, but it’s fleeting next to the purity of romance itself.


[Lee’s review was originally published 18/01/2017]


The universe in which musicals take place must be a peculiar place indeed, for every aspirational putz who dreams of opening a pie shop there’s an entire city block effectively shut down for five minutes while the perfectly choreographed dance number ensues. How does anybody get anything done? Imagine the workflow disruptions! How are the wars fought, I wonder? There’s a movie I’d pay to see. Call me, Hollywood.

So, enter stage-left La La Land, the return of the great American musical, in the vein of such classics as Singin’ in the Rain and The Music Man. Our lead roles are filled by Emma Stone and professional dreamboat Ryan Gosling, both recently confirmed triple threats, watch out! They play Mia and Sebastian; Mia is a struggling actress making ends meet as a barista, Sebastian is a down-on-his-luck jazz musician who aspires to open his own jazz club, but whose overbearing passion and snobbishness prevents him from holding down a steady job. Spoiler warning: they fall in love. Their dynamic works well and you generally like them both, but their relationship blossoms just a little too quickly to avoid feeling tropey, especially considering their rocky start.

It’s a throwback in many ways, even the plot follows that classic American Dream arc, an aging concept the presence of which in this modern setting is almost but not quite distracting. Yet they do endeavour to chip away at it, with personal compromises being made, a troubled work-life balance and both main leads not getting absolutely everything that they want (illustrated quite nicely by an excellent “what-if” final sequence), but they still achieve their dreams, and become wealthy and famous on top of it. The ending goes somewhere impressively left-field in this regard, and was the difference between a good movie and a great one as far as I was concerned. Is it possible to be gently-abrupt? It feels as though that’s what’s been accomplished here.

If my quibbling over unimportant thematic devices gives you the impression that I disliked this film, fear not. The characters are likable and well-acted, the camerawork is on-point, and the music and choreography is marvellous (as it damned better be). The complete unironic embrace of the romantic gives it an earnest charm that’s hard to dislike, and visually it’s a treat. Multicolour clothes dance to backgrounds so picturesque that I’m still uncertain if they’re cleverly hidden painted backdrops or not. Little mannerisms in how the characters move and react add tremendous character, and Gosling has it down to a science. Stone too, perhaps; my eyes were mostly on Ryan and his dreamy, gentle eyes. Hmm? He’s very talented, okay? That’s all! No need to get weird about it. Get off my back. Jesus!

In any case, it should go without saying it’ll clean up at the Oscars; it’s certainly seized all the Golden Globes that weren’t nailed down. It’s got enough character to rise above “blatant pandering” but it’s exactly the kind of nostalgia-bait the academy would just eat up. It’s really the kind of film you can bring just about anyone to and they’ll have a good time. What a rarity it is, to see a movie and think “Wasn’t that nice?” and mean it, free of twee or grasping attempts to play on your heartstrings. High marks all round.

Just a shame there’s no award category for “Film title most likely to confuse a Frenchman.”



10 thoughts on “La La Land Review

  1. I’m truly trying to grasp on what your problems are with this movie, and the only thing that I can come up with is that it didn’t have the message that you wanted it to have.
    There’s a bit of agreement that I have with you that the movie doesn’t have a strong, centralized message, but I’m not sure that’s a negative as long as it says something consistently enough.
    I probably just missed what your point was.

    Maybe I should ask this: what would have made the film better in your opinion? Or do you just have a problem with the message / lack thereof?

    Liked by 1 person

    • (I’ll preface SPOILERS here for any stray readers! :D)

      It’s not so much the message I wanted it to have but the ideals and themes the film is drawing upon to tell its story and how it doesn’t do anything interesting with them, or fails in a few ways to capitilise on them 🙂
      So, the film plays heavily with romanticism, right? Like, the original understanding of the word, the art movement where we draw from the past for emotional payoff, something that informs both ‘romance’ and, in this case, ‘nostalgia’. Indicated by the old Hollywood look, that jazz-age style, the old musical numbers and showtunes that are all trying to evoke a particular feeling with the audience. And so, the film establishes that there’s an element of fantasy, using bursts of song and dance to represent things too romantic or idealised to express otherwise (i.e. falling in love, lonliness on a pier, an amazing audition that taps into the past, etc.).
      My issue is, yes you can tap into this style and time and emotional connection for the audience to contrast with a grounded story, a sort of subversion of our standards per say, but that’s not with La La Land does and unfortunately it means it’s trying to play with the idea of being meaningful and emotional but isn’t commiting.
      The narrative utilises realism; it’s not a fairy tale, it’s got more lows than highs and ultimately the lovers/romantics are torn apart by reality. Besides not being much of a new story, it’s also not done particularly well as they both do end up in pretty idealised jobs and with happy lives, it’s just not the super-romantic one they wanted. So the realism doesn’t commit, the romanticism doesn’t commit; we’re kind of somewhere in between with a story that wants it both ways, to use nostalgic imagery and songs to evoke a dream-like story, but use that to take you somewhere meaningful, and it skips the important part and doesn’t fully warrant that with a cop-out ending of having the two people still quite successful regardless.
      Now I’m not arguing for a realistic film at all, is my point. The film clearly establishes romanticism as the theme: let’s use it. Go all out! More numbers, more fantasy! Get weird, because to anyone who doesn’t know what they’re looking at, this IS weird! It’s a weird film. It should have used this opportunity to express romance on a straight-faced, dream-like height we’ve never seen. Instead, it falls apart and the moral is LA is tough to live in for lovers. So it’s more what the film could have been, given what it had going, rather than what I just outright wanted the film to be.
      The film is still fine though! The romance is believeable, the nostalgic flashback fantasy is great, the look is wonderful, the songs are wonderful; just the heart of the intention and the narrative doesn’t connect or go anywhere, which is both a missed opportunity and a failure, to me.
      I’m happy for a film not to have a message, but this one actually tries to, and it’s just not the right place for it. That, coupled with the sheer amount of time these two spend unhappy (it’s about half the movie, pretty much from Fall onwards, plus any audition or time Mia is on her own) makes the film a bit miserable to sit through. I cared about these characters, and the story had its own agenda with them, and the agenda wasn’t particularly well thought out! They sold out my emotional connection for a hackneyed ‘that’s how life goes’ story, it’s very frustrating.

      Anyway, rambling now; hopefully that breaks it down a bit further for you and you can see where I’m coming from. It’s perhaps not a thing that bothered you with the movie, and that’s fine! I do like the film and, not that it matters, but I would have no issue seeing a film like this win the awards people are touting it for (except direction, because it’s more homage than well-crafted but that’s not too relevant). It’s just not the film it wants to be, or that it could’ve been, based on its own merits, and that’s a shame to me.

      Thanks for the comment! 😀


      • I think I understand. I still disagree, but I think I understand.
        It’s certainly one of the most thought out criticisms I’ve seen for this movie, I’ll give you that!

        The movie is supposed to contrast reality with fantasy. That’s the point. So it makes sense when the put it down the middle. There’s a fantasy that we all play in our heads that’s idealized and perfect, and oftentimes it doesn’t meet our expectations.
        But it plays off more the just reality vs. fantasy.
        There’s also nostalgia vs. contemporary. Both of the lovers both want things to stay the same and to stay fantastical, but the world is forcing change to go through, and it’s causing turmoil in their lives because Gosling wants to keep jazz the same, and no one wants to go see Stone’s old school play.

        Finally, the most tragic thing about it is that it contrasts career with love life. It plays off the American ideals of individualism and independence. Both love each other, but they both want to make it big in their careers, and Gosling choosing his music career over Stone, and Stone choosing her big role over staying with Gosling both have their consequences. The movie is about reality and the choices we make.

        And ultimately, the two realized that while their careers eventually brought them happiness, they missed out on the happiness that they could have brought each other, which seems like what they really wanted.

        So that’s why, in my opinion, the movie had to be a mixture of reality and fantasy. The entire movie is about fighting between what’s ideal and what’s real, and if you can’t find happiness in the real, then the ideal will eventually crumble apart too.

        If you caught all of this from the movie already, and what I said was nothing new, then I apologize, but I figured I’d make the case for why the movie was better (it was my #1 of 2016 after all).

        Thanks for commenting back!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Perfectly argued, and I’m glad you got the intended effect of the movie vividly enough that it struck the right chord with you; it is much of the reason why this isn’t rated or reviewed like some abject failure. I did quite like La La Land, I just feel it falls short on its intentions and its potential.
        So while everything you said is absolutely true, it’s what it does with those binaries and how it establishes them that doesn’t completely connect. The reality vs. fantasy is correct, that’s the romanticism I mentioned earlier, and you’re right to focus on the fact that the point is they are supposed to contrast, that’s the ‘cautionary tale’ segment of the main review. Dreams and reality don’t tend to fare well together, agreed, but the film has such a great relationship with fantasy, to the point where fantasy actually helps Mia get the job that eventually tears them apart and informs that romanticised ideal of their relationship they experience at the end, that for it to put that aside for “realism”, and then for that reality to be “they both get great jobs and find themselves in LA separately”, kind of undersells something of a middle ground this film could’ve explored through their relationship and their connection to both sides of that world.
        That reality being contrasted isn’t really reality; relationships and careers can thrive together, and be romantic! It’s just a negative take on reality to make a point about lowering your expectations, which is fine but not especially interesting or well-told if that’s where it wants to go (I mean, they fall out over unspoken things like Sebastian wanting to be the man Mia’s mother wants him to be in a one-off phone call from a character we never meet or hear from again, then he wins her back with a magic audition that comes from nowhere at the play ten people were at, which she uses to get a job in Paris so they’ll be separated; these are narrative conveniences, not well foreshadowed or justified).
        My point is, the fantasy never really leaves because this is still a film in LA, and so the realism doesn’t feel real enough to support the message it’s trying to make. It would have been better had it played romance straight or tried a more positive approach.
        That kind of tackles I think your other points a little from my perspective, but what I do love is your focus on this being a pointed look at the American ideals of Individualism and Independence. America is contradictory, as it promotes fantasy and reality at the same time, and the result speaks for itself. I think that’s a great way to contextualise what the film is trying to say, playing with nostalgia to interpret American pressures and standards. I really think you’re onto something there, and while I still think the film took the wrong approach to discussing that story (I mean, your romance doesn’t work out but you’re happy anyway if a little down about the whole thing? Expectations don’t always work out? It gets the experience down, but the resolve just doesn’t ring true if that’s the way it goes), I think you’ve hit the nail on the head as far as intentions go.
        I hope this doesn’t read like bashing, for either you or the film! This was a great comment, and you defense makes perfect sense. I really don’t want to deter you from your taste, more explain where I vary just so I don’t look like some contrarian without reasonable cause hahahaha

        Thanks again! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      • No worries. This was one of my more enjoyable arguments about a movie. Mainly because when someone disagrees with my opinion, they either are too disinterested or inept in debating, or they come out with pretty terrible arguments.

        Anyway, thanks again for the back-and-forth, I think I understand why you didn’t care as much for the film, even though those reasons don’t hold enough water for me to agree.

        And you’re totally fine! I would not try to review movies if dissenting opinions swayed me so easily; I can concede to really well-thought-out points, But I know some points hold more water to other people, and some points hold more water to me.

        Liked by 1 person

    • While I’m interested in how you disagree, I’ll not pry ;D
      Thanks for reading, not intending to sway so much as present my view (which, unfortunately seems to be alternative this time around; usually it’s not so clear-cut!), and you were cool enough to read it even when you disagreed, so I super appreciate that!
      Thanks for the lovely comment as well, and I’m glad you enjoyed the film 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s