Traditional musical is a rare find among theaters filled with big-budget action and superhero flicks. Audiences have likely forgotten, or even are unfamiliar with the musical genre. So when it is announced that a high profile rendition of the traditional musical fare is to hit to the silver screen, it makes waves. Damien Chazelle, director of critically acclaimed “Whiplash,” took his shot at an ode to the musicals of old, such as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “An American in Paris.” The result was “La La Land,” a risk-taking attempt at just that, an ode. Although Chazelle’s vision is full of creativity and at times precise craft, it gives viewers a greater appreciation for those musicals it wishes to emulate. And that is not a compliment.
“La La Land” is the story of a struggling actress, Mia (Emma Stone), and her quest to chase her dream of making it in Hollywood. In between auditions, she works to make ends meet as a barista at a studio lot coffee shop. Her path crosses with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a Jazz musician with a dream to open his own club someday. After a tumultuous beginning to their blossoming relationship, they become each other’s motivation to reach their individual dreams. In the process, they invest in the lives of each other and the enriching aspects of companionship.
As “La La Land” opens on a Los Angeles freeway, audiences are greeted with a cinema experience unlike almost anything else they have seen over the course of the last year. The imagination exhibited is unrivaled, and a tone for what is to come is immediately set. It‘s easy to appreciate what Chazelle is trying to accomplish with this film, but it is met with a slew of problems. The opening musical number in this scene is okay, but forgettable. Coupling that with poor mixing of vocals with backing music, it was difficult to decipher what was being sung by the actors. Not exactly a warm reception for mass audiences not well-acquainted with the genre.
Over the first 30 minutes of the film, “La La Land” chases the goal of being a musical created for the big screen. Somewhere along the way, it forgets what it set out to do. It would have worked as a traditional musical, and it would have worked as a film simply about music, but it couldn’t figure out its identity somewhere between. There were times where it edged on brilliance, and there were times where it took major risks, and just didn’t quite connect.
Stone and Gosling were both excellent in their acting performances. The pleasure of watching their romantic chemistry unfold is awesome in itself. A couple of scenes let them show off why they are considered to be two of the best in the business. In isolation, these scenes would appear to represent a film worthy of best picture conversation. However as part of a musical, both actors are serviceable singers, but leave much to be desired. There is too much emphasis on selling a film on big names, and sacrificing singing ability as a result. The same thing was present in “Les Miserables,” “Mama Mia” and “Sweeney Todd.”
Additionally, the dancing choreography is simple. It’s not bad, but musicals are a platform to show off big time choreography numbers, and there are few to none found in “La La Land.” This could be due to the actors’ ability, but it is likely more to do with the inept skills of Mandy Moore, the film’s choreographer. There was zero creativity involved in the design of dance numbers with the exception of the opening scene. This was a rather disappointing reveal given the nature of the film.
In general, the film’s design was well-crafted. Chazelle has a very visual mind and captures astounding imagery of the Los Angeles and Hollywood landscape with popping colors and the blurring line of reality and imaginary. The final sequence of “La La Land” is extraordinary. It saves the film from going completely over the edge, and makes the theater-going experience well worth it. Chazelle uses not only his strengths, but the strengths of his lead actors to flirt with the audiences emotions and leaves them absolutely awestruck as the credits roll.
Despite a valiant effort, Chazelle fails to capture the essence of a musical. The original score should be applauded, but the songs themselves are only just okay. After the first few songs, which are all unmemorable, “La La Land” uses the riff driven hooks of two songs as a crutch to drive the film home. The effort disappears, and the audience is left listening to those two songs over and over again, until they lose the rest of the magic that makes them slightly above average in composition. The quality of the film’s music is easily the most disappointing aspect of Chazelle’s attempt to bring the traditional musical back to the big screen.
If audiences are looking to be swept back to the nostalgic musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they will likely be stood up by “La La Land.” Its effort appears to fall just short of the musical cinema greats. In fact “La La Land” isn’t even the best musical of the year. That award goes to “Sing Street,” which doesn’t lack a true identity. “La La Land” would have been better served as simply a film about music in Hollywood and Los Angeles. It would have found its identity, and likely would have created one of the more stunning cinema experiences in 2016.