Thursday, June 15, 2017

La La Land: It's a Flawed Film as a Musical

Movie Review: La La Land (2016)
Version: Library borrow

Ryan Gosling as Sebastian
Emma Stone as Mia
J.K. Simmons as Bill
John Legend as Keith
Aimee Conn as "Famous Actress" (third)
Thom Shelton as "Coffee Spiller" (fifth)

A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.

Mia, an aspiring actress, serves lattes to movie stars in between auditions and Sebastian, a jazz musician, scrapes by playing cocktail party gigs in dingy bars, but as success mounts they are faced with decisions that begin to fray the fragile fabric of their love affair, and the dreams they worked so hard to maintain in each other threaten to rip them apart.

If you didn't grow up watching the great musicals on film, either on the big screen or on television, you might have been wowed by La La Land. Maybe that's why it was nominated for Best Picture Oscar -- lack of memory. Having seen some of the greats over the decades, I have memory and I was underwhelmed. Sorry, Hollywood. 

The movie begins with a song and dance routine, even before it establishes a story line. Fade up on a highway on-ramp crammed with cars, drivers listening to music on their radios and bored waiting while in highway gridlock. Suddenly, they break out in song and then dance. As the song and dance routine wind down, we finally meet the hero, Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling), and heroine, Mia (played by Emma Stone), who are in conflict as Mia gets a phone call and doesn't move ahead with the traffic and Sebastian blasts his horn in frustration, pulling around her in anger. 

Hereafter for the next half to three-quarters of an hour, each change of scene becomes an excuse to break into song. La La Land looks here more like an excuse to break into song rather than a typical musical, in which the music blends into a narrative, the music telling part of the story instead of the story simply filling in around the music. It's almost predictable that when you are introduced into a new scene the characters will break into song, maybe along with a dance. It isn't until that first half to three-quarters of an hour that the music suddenly becomes part of the narrative.

La La Land is about a want-to-be actress and a dreamer jazz pianist who struggle to make it in Hollywood. Finally after that first half hour, Sebastian introduces Mia to jazz at a jazz bar, explaining what jazz is really about and why he is devoted to it, as the jazz musicians play from the bandstand. You sense his excitement. From then on, the music he plays as a pianist and singer folds into a story -- becomes the story. Similarly, Mia explains her love for acting and we discover she really wants to be a playwright. And suddenly the music she sings folds into her story. Their dreams of becoming stars in the City of Stars comes to life.

 "City of Stars" is the theme song of the film and you don't hear the lyrics until halfway through the film!

The music is good, which includes pieces by one of America's most sought-after musical talents, John Legend, who makes an appearance in the film. And Emma Stone shines in her role as Mia, although there is no apparent in-scene chemistry between her and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian. I couldn't help catching a couple of plot holes right at the top of the film, too:  Why is there a skateboarder and a bicyclist on a busy highway on ramp? Why is there bumper-to-bumper traffic on the on ramp when in the distance you can see that the traffic on the highway onto which the on-ramp feeds is light and flowing freely?

But enough of the negatives. Let's talk about some positives. The color in the film is incandescent. The cinematography is beautiful. Also, there are plenty of interesting metaphors, such as toward the end of the film when Sebastian and Mia are having a meal together in Mia's apartment and Sebastian plays an LP album. They chat, catching up on their lives since his road trip with the band Sebastian in playing in has put them out of contact for a while. Then suddenly they break out into a disagreement. Cut to a close up of the spindle on the LP reaching the end of the cut. Mentally you say, "It's over." There is also some great use of lighting during musical scenes, house lights dimming on the surrounding crowds as a single spotlight remains focused on Sebastian or Mia so your focus is on their story and not the crowd.

A lot of these elements come right out of veteran musical cinema. From that perspective, you might be tempted to relive the good old days of hit Hollywood musicals. And likely, that's part of why La La Land was such a hit for the Oscars crowd. And certainly, once you get past that first 30 to 45 minutes, La La Land begins to look like a real musical. But I can't make myself get past that first 30 to 45 minutes, feeling like this was a movie about making a musical instead of a story told in the style of a musical. 

Don't mistake my meaning. La La Land has some great moments. It's worth seeing. It's just a flawed film as a musical, Oscars acclaim notwithstanding. I wish it had been better.

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