The massive success at the Golden Globe Awards for “La La Land” has placed it dead centre in the attention of movie-goers worldwide. Already, it is shaping up to be the signature release of 2016, but does this Musical really live up to the expectations set upon it?
Emma Stone plays Mia – a quiet type working at a coffee shop who dreams of becoming an actor. But multiple auditions later and that dream hasn’t quite panned out for her. The same story besets Ryan Gosling’s character Sebastian, a struggling pianist who wants to enter the world of Jazz. Both of their lives and troubles get entangled in a romantic musical, which always keeps the harsh tones of reality ever nearby.
Even though this has a feel of a modern film, with plenty of modern items included in it, there is a deep connection to the Golden Age of Musicals in Hollywood. There’s the use of deep, vibrant colours in the costume design and locations. And lots of visual nods by means of film-making items such as matte backgrounds, old lighting, and vintage display boards outside buildings. It’s interesting how they blend the modern and classic together in a way where neither really takes over completely.
Which goes for the music as well. The opener is wonderfully energetic, and followed up by one that is if anything, even better in how visually charged the camera and dancers are. The second is probably the best in the whole movie for me, it captures that intoxicating optimism that the old Musicals had in abundance. And yet sitting along these are very slow, more modern-feeling solo pieces, especially near the end. So you get a mix of both worlds.
For a production that most studios didn’t dare touch with a hundred-yard pole, they got a pretty superb cast together. As you’d expect, both Gosling and Stone lead the way, and deservedly so. Both are heavily flawed characters who are jammed in life from things that aren’t really in their control. Mia has rotten luck when it comes to the auditions, and her intrinsic, shy character leads to her falling into the background. While Sebastian is deeply passionate for Jazz, but that is the very thing that holds him back from taking on opportunities. Playing morbid Christmas jingles in a restaurant doesn’t help either. Of course, their flaws and issues are delved into more through the film’s running time, making their journey one that isn’t so on-dimensional as what you’d see from a production more classic.
So let’s go into what really works in this film. The visuals are really impressive, they make use of extended shots to capture the scale of the song and dance numbers very well. The same goes for the lighting which as mentioned before, helps the colours jump out from the screen. There’s something really interesting in the choices of locations they pick too – very few of them are what you would call “ordinary”. Even though they probably are normal aspects in the Hollywood territory, the camera angles and shadows almost romanticise them to a lingering extent. It is kind of what we saw in “Midnight in Paris” if you’re trying to think of a reference point.
The actors put their everything into this project, even the smaller roles dones by the likes of JK Simmons, and Mia’s three roommates. They’re all behind this musical out of passion and not just a cheque, and it translates to the screen effectively.
Lastly, let me discuss the place this goes in the third act (without spoiling it for those that are keen to see it for themselves). It spins from being a musical about ambition and romance, into something very different and of a much more difficult tone. It starts to ask the questions of whether what they are chasing is the reality that is set out for them, or some dream that can only be visualised but never reached. It goes in a more unique direction than I was expecting, even though the idea of a bumpy road in a romance is almost textbook by now. I do have to applaud their grit for taking the ultimate place the movie ends upon – it is not designed to please the crowds but instead, highlight that real life sometimes just goes that way.
With that all done, time for me to go onto the more important part of this review, and some results that surprised even me.
I was really enjoying the blend of the modern and classic in this for the first act – it is something that will appeal to young people and get them interested in Musicals. You have to appreciate productions that go for that. The second act focuses on where the relationship goes as well as sets together the direction where they take the final act. It was somewhere around this point that the musical numbers stepped aside for the Jazz, and it kind of began to slip a little for me. The tones takes on a shape that is quite common in Indie romance flicks, and even the thoroughly stellar performances can’t always mask that up.
Then there’s the “secondary” love interests of Mia, which barely sit upon the surface and are given exceptionally little depth. Even by the end I just could not buy where it went, because we are just to assume it happened, even though common sense was yelling at me that it would have gone a different way. As said before, I really like the idea of where it ended, but the manner in which it is delivered to the audience was a bit ham-fisted.
It shouldn’t be understated however that this is a really good movie. There are plenty of music and dance numbers that I loved, the visuals are uniquely stunning, the acting is fantastic, and the blend of the classic and new is done in a very interesting way. BUT, I don’t quite think it was to a point of brilliance that deserved the number of wins at the Golden Globes that it went away with. The other major contenders have yet to be released here in Ireland, so I haven’t been able to see them and make an accurate comparison. But I feel very confident in saying that there will be something better than this.
“La La Land” is a labour of love and a nostalgic nod to the Hollywood of old, which gets plenty right, but is let down by aspects that aren’t. It reminds me of “The Artist” – which despite me lavishing with praise initially, over time began to allow the problems to simmer to the surface. Still excellent, but not the defining movie of that year. The same goes for here, you will have a really good time watching it, but chances are that you will ind better. Don’t let that tarnish your time seeing this, it’s still a little world worth visiting.
Thanks for reading!