La La Land (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

La La Land (2016)

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Sebastian wants to save jazz, plays in bars whose owners don't understand him, and scrapes by in the hopes of opening his own club.  Mia is tired of working as a barista for the stars, she wants her own fame, and auditions constantly to be "discovered."  The world provides music for them both as they sing their way into the future.  Damien Chazelle directs and wrote the screenplay for La La Land, which stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

At the end of my review for Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, I wrote, "...Chazelle may have set an impossible bar for him to clear with his next film."  Now, after a scant few hours have passed since I finished La La Land and none of the songs in this musical have stuck with me, I feel comfortable in saying Chazelle hit the bar.

La La Land consists of equal parts technical delight and insufferable self-centered characters with no grasp of history.  There are many joys in the former but it's the latter I'm more concerned with.  Two key shots, over almost as soon as they began, provide context for the distasteful parts of La La Land.  In the first, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is on a night-time stroll singing to himself when he comes across a black woman dancing with a black man.  Sebastian interjects himself into their dance, no apology, just takes over while the man looks understandably annoyed at this punk coming in where he wasn't invited.

The second is more subtle.  Sebastian is finally getting into his "groove" playing jazz piano in a club with a proper ensemble.  The spotlight stays right on Sebastian as the camera gently whirls around the stage.  All the other player's are black, their faces obscured by the darkness, and when seen in the background their faces are blurred to cloak their identity.  For a guy who thinks jazz needs to be "saved", Sebastian is a selfish brat who has problems sharing the spotlight in an ensemble.  I may be assuming a bit too much here, but having trust in and sharing the spotlight with performers in a jazz ensemble is part of the point of jazz.

La La Land doesn't get better than its opening number.

Still, without getting into the philosophy behind jazz, these are troubling bits of whitewashing going on.  La La Land is diversity by quota, frontloading a multiethnic ensemble in its sole good musical number before diving in to the white white whiiiiiiiiiiiiite stories of Sebastian and Mia (Emma Stone).  They're both plucky young folks with a dream, just want to do their thing, and surely success will come.  Success does come for Sebastian from his old band mate Keith (John Legend), a black musician, who offers Sebastian thousands of dollars, a cut of ticket sales, and some merchandise points just for showing up and playing.

This is La La Land celebrating white mediocrity at its most delusional.  I get that Chazelle is making a fantasy throwback to the days of Technicolor musical wonder.  But those movies had arcs, memorable songs, and were bristling with energy.  Chazelle's approach to music with La La Land is to stage several length song and dance numbers with as few cuts as possible.  On a technical level this is spectacular for the first forty-five minutes or so.  But in the long-term it's tiring, especially once you realize Chazelle repeats the trick of dimming the lights to remove background characters to better focus on Sebastian and Mia.

When mediocre meets mediocre huge success is sure to follow.

La La Land feels caught in an awkward space between cynical understanding of entertainment and full-on fantasy world where dreams come true.  They're an unseemly fit when we have one musical number taking place in Mia's gigantic apartment - hinting at fantasy because there's little chance a barista could make that kind of rent - then the more dialogue-heavy parts in Sebastian's drab apartment for some ground-level "This is how it is kids."  Their worlds don't collide so much as forcefully exist with one another because the universe (ie/ director) keeps bringing them together.  I'm not a naturally cynical person but when the two leads sing a song about how they're not attracted to each other, then look for excuses to find one another in the very next scene, I grow tired of being jerked around by the artifice.

At this point you may be asking, "Why didn't Andrew rate this a Dislike?"  Because, dear readers, I'm human, and it's really hard not to get caught up in the joyful energy when La La Land is at its best.  Intellectual and social criticism aside, the opening dance sequence with a literal rainbow of smiling faces and bright colors is a delight as Chazelle's camera moves between the rows of cars.  There are also moments where the cynical part of the entertainment industry butts up entertainingly against Sebastian's selfishness, which queues up J.K. Simmons in one of the most hilarious and justified firings in recent memory.

Chazelle is a spectacular director, and if you just want a breezy good time then you could do worse than La La Land.  It's just his shortcomings as an artist are becoming clear, and the more he starts buying into his own hype as a young director prodigy the more worried I'll become.  I don't expect all of his movies to have the venom of Whiplash, or even as technically proficient as La La Land, but I hope he remembers the artists who came before him and shows more understanding about the world as it is now than celebrating hopeful white mediocrity.

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La La Land (2016)

Screenplay written and directed by Damien Chazelle.
Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

Posted by Andrew

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