The new film La La Land (2016), which came out this past Christmas, has emerged as the most talked about film this winter. Met with 14 Academy Award nominations, it ties with All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997) for the most nominations received by a single film. Additionally, it won all 7 Golden Globe categories that it was nominated for, including Best Motion Picture for a Musical or Comedy, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.
After learning all of this and hearing much praise from family and friends, I decided to watch it for myself. Perhaps it was too hyped up, or maybe people just don’t have the same standard for filmmaking as me, but after finishing the film, I was unpleasantly displeased. I thought to myself, “Maybe I just don’t get it,” but I quickly shook the thought.
I grew up watching every musical known to man with my grandmother—Singing in the Rain, Chicago, The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, Grease, West Side Story, etc. I don’t mean to brag, but I’d say I’m pretty well versed in the art of watching and enjoying musicals. So how could it possibly be that I didn’t like the very film that beat out Deadpool for Best Motion Picture?
Perhaps it was that very same knowledge of musicals that contributed to my disappointment. After all, it did pay homage to the classics; you could see it in every scene. The bright clothing and “retro” tone really did make it feel as though I was watching one of the oldies. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t believe the first scene to be a spoof of old-school musicals. I genuinely thought the film was starting out on a joke, poking fun at what most people think of when they hear the word “musical.” While watching, I understood why so many people recommended it to me—it was just as sarcastic and ironic as me! However, when the scene switched, I comprehended that the viewer was supposed to take it on as only partly ironic, if not completely at face value.
Here is where my first major problem with the film lies. It starts off as ironic, at least, I’d like to think so. It’s paying homage to all those musicals my grandmother, and I used to enjoy when I was younger. But somewhere along those 2 hours and 8 minutes of dragged out content, the film lost its sardonic edge. The film eventually began believing and playing into everything it was subtly making a joke out of. I honestly thought the opening scene was the filmmakers saying, “Haha! Even we know how ridiculous musicals are! Why not make it even more obvious?” Maybe if they continued with that stylistic interpretation, I would have been more enjoyable. Then again, maybe I’m just too ironic for the movies.
My second problem, which is also rooted in my extensive watching of musicals, was with the components that make up a musical. By this, I mean the songs and dances. I’m sorry to tell you, but it was all trash.
Sure, “City of Stars” is beautiful and thank god for that because it’s played so often. It’s as though the songwriters got bored every couple scenes and said, “Hey, let’s just throw that one song in here again.” Even then, the song itself is pretty lazily composed. It’s a simple tune that can be easily replicated on a piano and I get it, that’s what they were going for! The simplicity of the song is exactly what contributes to its beauty. However, I personally don’t think the leading song in a film should be a tune as subtle and shaky as this. Aside from that, I couldn’t remember any other melodies from the movie. Perhaps it is because none of them were that memorable, a term which should never be associated with the score of any musical. La La Land could’ve taken some pointers from Chicago or Grease. Anyone who watches those films walks away with too many songs in his or her head that they don’t know which to sing first. I wish I could say the same for La La Land’s score.
As for the dancing, I can’t help but smile at the thought of Ryan Gosling taking daily tap dancing lessons just for the film. He’s cute; there’s no denying that. But is he a good dancer? Sure! Just not good enough. Now I don’t mean to compare him to Gene Kelly in that iconic scene in Singing in the Rain, but I’m going to compare him to Gene Kelly in that iconic scene in Singing in the Rain. That’s what a true musical’s dance scene is composed of—over the top theatricality and genuine talent. Compare that to Mia and Sebastian’s dancing scenes and you’ll see the problem. The dancing is just as flimsy as their theatricality. And while I understand that we live in an age where minimalism and simplicity reign, musicals should always remain as an escape from that.
Regarding the story, it was a bit drawn out. I think the film could have been reconciled if only it were a bit shorter. The middle seemed to go on for ages and right when you thought the film was over; the writers decided to drag out the ending too. This would’ve been okay if I didn’t have to sit through a childish interpretation of an adult relationship, which is probably what made the film feel so long. Obstacles were visible before they arose and when they arrived, the conflicts exceeded their appropriate duration. However, I do appreciate what they were trying to do with the ending. Even though it felt drawn out, it was necessary to the closure of the film.
Despite all of these negative sentiments I have about the film, I thoroughly enjoyed the cinematography. Filmmaking is an art form and cinematography is the main reflector of that. La La Land used color in such a powerful way that it is almost impossible to avoid it. Certain colors contributed to the retro vibe of the film, while others described the ineffable qualities of characters. Each character and setting had a specific color dedicated to it, which is a stylistic choice I am 100% behind. And aside from color, Mia and Sebastian’s dance in the planetarium was a bit cliché but still magnificently elegant. The visuals of the film focus a lot on the sky, but not in the existential way most films do. Every snapshot of the film was focused on romance, which is accentuated by sunsets and stars. It was definitely a unique use of background and setting, that I’ve yet to come across.
I’m not saying I hated La La Land, by any means. I’m just saying I wish I liked this film more than I did. It also leaves me with a few snobbish questions:
Where did Mia’s friends go after the first 20 minutes of the film?
Where are all the gay people in Los Angeles?
Why is Mia such a cliché and Sebastian such a snob?
Why does Mia make it look so easy to land a leading role in a huge Hollywood film?
So, in my unpopular opinion, I don’t think it deserves all the hype, but an award for cinematography is warranted. Furthermore, I’m glad Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling were cast as the stars. They acted beautifully, and while they’re missing some musical talent, they deliver their lines with confidence and raw emotion. I just hope next year’s blockbuster will give us all a little more to work with than “City of Stars” and such a lack of irony.
By: Natalie Novak ’20