Unlike most other genres, musicals face an increased need to validate themselves to a viewer. There’s a mental blockade that doesn’t allow most audiences to take a group of people spontaneously breaking out into song and dance very seriously. Not only has La La Land earned a wide appeal, but the Emma Stone/Ryan Gosling-led celebration of music and film has people saying Best Picture.
The hype may have hurt my experience with this one. I’m very ok with musicals, so that wasn’t an issue. And with such high praise, it was fair to expect nothing but the best. Many aspects of La La Land meet this high bar. Stylistically speaking, director Damien Chazelle finds a home somewhere between real life and fantasy. Freddie Mercury would be very confused. Some of the film’s strongest sequences are also the most abstract and daring. Unfortunately, I felt the more realistic angles meant to keep the story somewhat grounded failed to stand out. There’s some quirky and charming humor, made possible by the predictably outstanding chemistry between the two leads. And their relationship is, above all else, a shining example of cinematic romance.
Style aside, La La Land’s most substantial strength is the way Stone and Gosling convey a sense of passion for their respective dreams. Their passion for each other, despite that chemistry, tends to fluctuate based on what the plot needs to happen. Some of their later decisions are more about an overarching message than they are about character motivations. Basically, pursuing one’s creative dreams has costs. Artists are prone to personal crises, and creative integrity often has to be flexible when you’re on the road to something better. These are all themes that were also present in Don’t Think Twice, which managed to speak directly to the audience without sacrificing any sense of realism from the characters.
Damien Chazelle practically breaks the fourth wall with his larger than life creativity, and as of right now I’d cast my imaginary Oscar vote in his personal direction. Due to its starry-eyed flair, La La Land’s director is practically the main character and deserves that recognition. Gosling has enough charisma to cure world boredom, but I felt he was much stronger and at home in The Nice Guys. Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool obviously generates more buzz, as the first superhero movie to take home big awards. But I felt Gosling’s 1970s noir adventure was actually the best comedic performance of the year. Either way, 2016 wasn’t a bad year for Ryan. One thing Gosling did nail, despite not singing all that well, was make the audience appreciate his passion almost as much as he did. It’s tough to make it through La La Land without developing a love for jazz, as well as a slight resentment towards commercial sellouts. Sebastian is a character that should feel pretentious, but he’s lovable and surprisingly relatable. Who knew Ryan Gosling could pull that combination off?
I’d argue Emma Stone was the stronger performer of the two, both vocally and emotionally. Mia’s character had a lot to play with, experiences some swift ups and downs, and is ultimately the film’s emotional centerpiece. Her defining song, the potential “Oscar moment”, stands out among a lineup of other music that wasn’t nearly as memorable. There’s another quality number featuring John Legend, which is like saying Georges St-Pierre’s stunt work in Captain America: The Winter Soldier was convincing. I prefer the subtleties of Amy Adams’ performance in Arrival, given what she was able to do with material that wasn’t so on-the-nose. But it’ll be tough to argue against an Emma Stone victory if things trend in her direction. La La Land benefits from two incredibly likable actors who, at times, overcome the frustrating nature of their characters.
I appreciated the film’s ability to glamorize and satirize something at the same time. Don’t Think Twice did that as well but, this time, I felt La La Land did just as good a job. There are some jabs towards Los Angeles and the entire entertainment industry. But the movie is still, as I’m sure most reviews have said, a love letter to art and passion. That phrase is a cliché for a reason. Love letters to something make for good and honest movies.
As a viewer, your ability to enjoy La La Land hinges on your willingness to be swept away by the magic of a film that probably looks better from afar. The concept, presentation, and overall style certainly resemble that of a Best Picture. To skeptics, the screws loosen a bit as the story plays out. For me, it was an artistically intriguing movie and I’m a little surprised by its status as an early favorite. Well made and inspiring, La La Land will continue to be one of the most important movies to see for this year’s major awards.