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La La Land: Another Review of Sun
By Alex Carrigan
Note: This article is part of a review series by Alex Carrigan from February 14-24. To learn about the series, visit this post.
First day in and I break my rules. See, I was supposed to see Fences yesterday with a group, but one person was extremely late, causing us to miss the screening. The film with the closest time that the majority of people in the group hadn’t seen yet was La La Land, so we saw that instead. So it looks like this year, I’m starting with the one film I’ve seen previously before moving to the newer films. I’ll also be making Fences the last film I see, because now I feel like it’s going to mean a lot that I had to wait longer to see this film.
La La Land is the second film by Damien Chazelle, whose directorial debut I previously reviewed for Quail Bell. The film follows two artists in Los Angeles and their relationship as they move through their careers. Mia (Emma Stone) is a barista who aspires to be an actress, while Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who wants to own his own club. The film is a musical and follows the two as they try to match their artistic sensibilities with the reality of the Hollywood fame machine. What follows is a colorful film with original songs, bright colors, references to Hollywood musicals, and emotional whiplash-hey, just like the last movie!
As I mentioned in yesterday’s article, La La Land was the feel-good holiday movie I saw while visiting my family for Christmas. Considering it was also the last movie I saw in 2016, it was the movie I needed to see. I needed something somewhat cheery and fun to make up for, well, 2016 in general. I listened to the soundtrack repeatedly, and I found myself jazz dancing around the house. Naturally, it was clear this was one of my favorite movies of the year and a movie I was going to like the closer I was to the day I saw it.
Now that I’ve seen the film again and had more time to see how people reacted to it, how did it hold up? Was it as worthy of all the praise and awards? Or was it as overrated and muddled as some people found it? Questions like these are why I’m glad serendipity forced me to see this film first.
My answer is not as simple. Something about musicals that isn’t as common as most films is the escapist element. Film in general is meant as a tool for escapism, and musicals are probably one of the easiest genres to get swept up in. Everything is frantic, colorful, and appeals to the most basic of human desires. Musicals tend to have happy endings and have sugary sweet romance in them. Combined with the spectacle of catchy music and ensemble dance numbers, musicals are a way to melt your heart and get swept up in the energy of the scene and easily lose yourself in the lyrics of the song.
La La Land has a lot of melting to do considering the chilly reception to current sociopolitical matters, and for that, the film has probably benefited. The film is not a complete escapist fantasy. Mia and Sebastian, quite honestly, have a terrible time in the movie. Sure, they are happy in parts of it, but both characters are regularly challenged and forced to face their ideals against the harsh reality of life. Both characters are given honest and blunt critiques that they can’t even argue against because even they have to accept that they are wrong.
An issue is that the film doesn’t go out of its way to show that the two could be wrong. Sebastian joins a jazz band that blends in more modern music techniques, and while the leader (John Legend) is right that they have to evolve to keep jazz alive, the film doesn’t go out of its way to show that Legend is right and that Sebastian is wrong. Sebastian is in the wrong for most of it, but the film doesn’t seem interested in forcing him to confront the fact that he’s too much of a traditionalist, nor does it even show his compromise to this, where he can stay traditional and improve his own craft by taking in new ideas and techniques.
Mia doesn’t have any issues like this in her story. Part of this is that her craft is harder to display compared to Sebastian’s. We see her at auditions and casting calls, but the differences between Emma Stone playing Mia and Emma Stone playing Mia playing a character aren’t as apparent. Even Mia’s big project, a one-woman show with one performance, isn’t shown on screen. This causes some issues as we can’t tell if Mia is stunted as an actor or too good for the roles she’s trying out for. Her one-woman show flops, but she later nails an audition that’s entirely a monologue she came up with. Was the show just a sign that she’s a better actor than writer, or was it that she is better at improvisation than script reading? It’s hard to tell, and the film doesn’t make it as apparent.
A lot of the complaints I raise here aren’t really unique to this film. An issue with musicals in general is that they tend to have some underlying issues with the characters or stories that are hidden beneath the glamour and spectacle. Rent’s protagonists are often called out for being annoying and pretentious. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers shows that kidnapping and Stockholm Syndrome work. I could go on and on about other films whose morals and messages are especially muddied as the times change, but I’m a little more willing to forgive La La Land because I feel it’s an issue common with musicals in general.
Unfortunately, this does place this in the same position where, once I see a musical, I’m not as taken by the spectacle. Singin’ in the Rain is one of my all time favorite musicals, but even I am not as likely to go for it unless it happens to be on TV. La La Land was great the first time I saw it, but seeing it the second time, I don’t think it’s any better or worse than any other musical I’ve seen.
Of course, I do like this movie, and I am glad I saw it. A lot of the issues I do have can’t prevent me from liking the movie. It’s one of the best films I saw in 2016, and if it does win Best Picture, I will accept it because it does have enough appeal to get people to vote for it. Heck, I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write this review, so I can’t dislike it entirely.
My summation of the film is simple: it’s a good movie, one a lot of people will enjoy. I don’t know if it has the mass appeal needed to make it a great film, but to get a completely original film in 2016 is a blessing, so I will take it as it is. It’s by no means perfect, and the complaints I’ve seen leveled at the film are legitimate ones I won’t really deny and may only argue if I find them fundamentally wrong (looking at you, nameless individual who complained to me about how you didn’t like that Gosling’s goal was property ownership).
If anything, I do think that, if La La Land manages to take 13 of the 14 awards it is nominated for (two nominees for Best Original Song prevent it from taking a sweep unless there’s a tie), I can understand many of them. I expect to be wrong about any predictions for acting, directing, and writing, but Chazelle is a very technically precise director, so I can see it taking a lot of technicals. And yes, I do expect it to win Best Original Song, probably more for “City of Stars” than “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” although I am curious to see if Lin-Manuel Miranda can steal it with “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana.
Overall, La La Land is a film you can love or hate. People on both sides will be justified in their opinion. To me, it’s a really good movie that falls short of greatness, but it’s a film that was needed in 2016, and if it takes top honors, I’ll see it as a desire to be in a better place than we actually are as a country. In a way, it will be an escapist win for the Academy, and I can see it being looked at fondly compared to other Best Picture wins this decade (looking at you, Argo). I don’t think it will be the best picture of the lot, but I’ll take it a lot more easily than I imagine I will some other films that could have won in past years.
Tomorrow: I look at Hell or High Water, a film I know virtually nothing about. Hooray for critical objectivity!