Film · Review

La La Land

There’s not really much point in approaching a review after everything has been said. Especially when it’s been being said for a month and, in addition to having nothing new to add, its being said in a review that is unlikely to get one crucified and even more unlikely to be read. Enough of this, it’s not very becoming and if I had any sort of editor it would be entirely struck through and probably accompanied by some very angry notes. Anyhow, seeing as we’re on the topic of self-indulgence let’s talk about La La Land.

That’s a little mean. Also a little accurate. La La Land is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s imperfect attempt to revitalise the original film musical. When it wants to be, it’s bold about this, it kicks straight off with some very impressive musical numbers. It stars the sorta people who one looks at and thinks, ‘Yeah, they probably deserve this.’ It all seems very worthy, until slowly it ain’t no more and then, what else is there?

A lot is made of optimism here, the population of Los Angeles are dreamers, striving to achieve them. Our leads are an aspiring actress and a pianist who hopes to open his own jazz club. They meet cute and there’s a romance and it’s so desperate. It’s hard to try to come down on a film which is trying so hard. It’s like a puppy. When you’re considering art you must consider the frameworks with which it associates. Whenever a film is made it has to knowingly enter into a discourse with over a century filmmaking. I guess when it comes down to it my discomfort is that it fails to meaningfully engage with the traditions that it employs.

It wholly fails to question itself, why is this story to be best told through a musical? The film itself swiftly stops having an answer, the Frozen structure is in full effect here, a first act full of song which then swiftly drops away when telling the story in the form becomes a challenge. The film expects the signifier to be enough, the style becomes a useful shorthand, informing us of what the piece intends to be. The film does none of the hard work to make it that though. While the musical sequences are accomplished and joyous, there is a laziness to the rest of the enterprise that serves to thoroughly undermine them.

Gosling and Stone are fantastic. I’m sure leaning to dance, and play piano, and all the rest of it took them a lot, but the effect is certainly worth it. They are two remarkable talents and beautiful people, I’m sure they are kind and generous too. You would expect their characters to soar, but they don’t, they’re both frankly pretty bad. Not like in a good way either, they’re these petty selfish people. They don’t owe us their good, and I’m pretty sure Chazelle intended a similar effect to come out of this. Thing is, the goodness flows from the actors, which flows from the form. I wanna read this off the page, coz there’s some script work need doing here, mainly in making these two people bearable. Listen to the words they say and marvel how they make you like them.

Maybe it might be worth it if it felt like it was saying anything. It kinda isn’t though, it’s not a working deconstruction because it doesn’t demonstrate an understanding of the form well enough to comment on the nature of its artifice. It’s not a working reconstruction because it positions itself in too direct reference to the tradition it appropriates. It’s not even a good throwback, it lifts far too much from previous works (especially Singin’ in the Rain, which multiple sequences in this film directly aim to recreate) to stand on its own.

The great movie musicals we all remember, the ones this attempts to be, came largely in two periods: post-depression and post-war. Understand why they are the way they are, to fail to do so in re-creating them results in an exercise in empty style. While Linus Sandgren’s cinematography sure is stylish we remember seeing the moving floor in That’s Entertainment! and for all La La Land’s flash and flair it fails to develop the production meaningfully.

La La Land is a film we’d all like to like. I think back now to my seat in the theatre and know there was points where I was willing it on. It’d be so essential, it’d say something nice about us if it could only be liked. The film seems to know this, but lacks the function to articulate it. That’s why some people are out there being so negative, the imperfection and the adoration. When you look at the gulf between the two it’s indicative. La La Land being liked does not make us better, nor does it make it better. Regardless, it’s candy, and isn’t it just the most comforting lie?

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