La La Land
A Review By Ben Hunter
3 Out Of 5 Stars


More reason why Hollywood loves its artistic narcissism and flocks at the chance to pat itself on the back with others to all engage in group think.  

City of stars
Are you shining just for me?
City of stars
There's so much that I can't see
Who knows,
Is this the start of something wonderful and new?
Or one more dream,
That I cannot make true? 
Bienvenue ... you're here.  In raw ordeal, you've set your eyes to the city of stars as a wistful ingénue. This land of angels and where dreams come true.  The heartbroken thrive on the complexity of the journey.  For this is a melting pot of chimera and wonder, everyone shares this fantasy and lives this smile, embraces the frown, and becomes the life.  The life of a dreamer, learning what it means to preserver, and to never give up. 

Welcome … to Los Angeles!

Writer/Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) returns, leaving us all uttering, “upping the ante is clearly an understatement”, in his latest, La La Land.  Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling musician trying to open his own club in LA.  That’s right, you assumed correctly if you’re starting to see a trend with Chazelle’s work, it’s a jazz club and Sebastian is a jazz ENTHUSIAST (not lover, that doesn’t do this any justice) and musician. Through the normal course of time of living in the city, like while in traffic on The 101 (an LA thing) or while at a party, or another party, he runs into this girl he keeps managing to cross paths with, Mia (Emma Stone).  They discover they share the same heart as aspiring artists, she following in her aunt’s footsteps as a true thespian.  So they laugh, they sing (as this is a musical), they fight, they persevere in hopes of the dream.  The dream everyone has pondered at one point or another in their lives, making it big!  All in lavish and extravagant fashion as newcomer Chazelle brings his A-Game as a new up and comer to be reckoned with in the industry and city of angels.   

Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone in La La Land (2016). 
As an adopted Angeleno for almost a decade now, it was good seeing some of my old hot spots and stomping grounds as a struggling artist myself.  But that’s become a forgetful normality with all the stories that take place here.  I said on the car ride home, “if you have ovaries, this film will rape them.”  Remember when Gene Kelly is ecstatic over a girl, so he “sings in the rain”?  Or when Julie Andrews is so full of life that she has to shout it from the hilltops, claiming that those very hills are alive with “sounds of music”? Or Natalie Wood “feels pretty” having met a boy on the “west side”? Remember how lively and gay that made you feel?  How your mother reminded you of your sensitive side when your family watched these films when you were a kid?  How your girlfriend dragged you to something of the like on date night?  La La Land shoots to be no different.  Its aim is to be right up there with a stereotypical musical, straight from the1950’s, but updated for today.  “Traditional”in every sense of the word.  Lavish and over the top musical numbers for no reason, extras upon extra actors that serve no purpose other than make this as big and as extravagant as possible to blow your mind away. As if they’re paying homage to the spirit of Gene Kelly, for they don’t want him to turn in his grave.

So with that said, this is a traditional musical that really pulls the heart strings of the audience that typically is interested in this genre of film, women, and men who can appreciate a good romance.  I rekindled the feelings of wanting to write an intricate romance for a girl someday because of this.  It’s a thoroughly written love story that’s colorful and pretty and dapper and magical and dreamy and Leonardo DiCaprio please marry me right now because I’m so full of emotion and feelings right now, heart … take me!  A love story, in every sense of the word.  We witness these two go through the ups and downs of a relationship and how the pursuit of one’s goals can clash with the pursuit of one’s biology.  So this isn’t for the 17 year old high school kid who just wants to drink alcohol and have sex with every girl he sees.  Which is why Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd got me to take a second look at musicals.  That 17 year old kid could LOVE that film as well as the 34 year old woman who dragged her boyfriend to see La La Land because, Ryan Gosling “is so dreamy!” 

Thus, being strictly for a certain audience keeps it at bay, unless it breaks free in such a way that is undeniably and noticeably good and acceptable.  So, right away, from the get go, the first thing I see is an extravagant (there’s that word again) and over the top musical number with extras upon extras, complex cinematography and choreography … that do nothing but get you in the mood for witnessing a musical.  Sweeney Todd got me to relook at musicals because I realized I can appreciate any well told story, including musicals, if the theme of the story is pushed forward scene by scene.  So the music should serve this purpose as well.  The extreme lavishness of the musical numbers should make no difference.  It won’t move me if it’s just greatness in the middle of a story that it doesn’t forward, which is why I’m not a huge fan of (trigger warning) Signing in the Rain.  The songs are AMAZING but it’s clear they were the focus, not the story.  Which should be the focus of every movie, including musicals.

So, if you’re going to go this route of lavish musical numbers, which there is no getting around, instead of using the songs to help really tell the story, then okay, but you really have to knock it out of the ballpark on this one with me.  Such as An American in Paris (minus the ending).  I just remember not being able to look away because I was so moved.  When Gene Kelly takes Leslie Caron by the river side in Paris, you can just FEEL the intensity, the passion, the love and romance of the air!  I’m definitely going to go YouTube that scenenow having just talked about it.  So you forget all about the fact that “they’re randomly breaking into song and dance” in the middle of a story, because it’s so good.  With La La Land, yes, it’s elaborate.  Director Chazelle’s editing and shot selection tells you why Harvard is such a prestigious place to study.  This film commands your attention, it wreaks of “This is an Oscar movie, and we will smack you in the face if you say otherwise”.  But could I not look away because I’m head over heels?  No, Ryan Gosling is no Gene Kelly.  He is one heck of an actor though, A-list, and as good as they come, make no mistake about that.  I commend him for his piano skills, revealing his dedication to his craft having learned the skill for hours on end to not have to use a double for this production.  But the choreography, the singing and overall capturing of the intensity as his predecessors did that I witnessed in An American in Paris (minus the ending) amongst others, was interesting to experience, but not, “Yes! Yes! A thousand times YES!!”  As in An American in Paris (minus the ending). 

As if straight from An American in Paris (minus the ending)! 
To its credit however, a lot of the music was more on the side of “helping to tell the overall story” and less “just because this is a musical let’s focus more on an extravagant number and less on the story (like with Singing in the Rain).”  But there was as a lot of music as well, like right out of the gate, that was more along the lines of “just because”.  That feeling I always hated and why I never bothered with musicals until Sweeney Todd opened my eyes where we break into song just for the heck of it.  Heck, I didn’t even know Gosling’s character name was Sabastian.  I think as Chazelle eases you into the narrative it all functions better, but he has to grab your attention somehow right away.  Which I didn’t like because I started to think, “oh Lord another typical musical with pointless randomness … get comfortable, we’re going to be here awhile”. 

This is primarily because Gosling and co-star Emma Stone are a good fit, but not perfect for each other.  They go great, and it works, calm down.  But you don’t immediately shout yes as you do when you think of John Stamos & Lori Laughlin (Uncle Jesse & Aunt Becky).  We just WANT them to be together!  Why?  Because they’re PERFECT for each other!  They belong together!  We secretly wish they’d get divorces so they’re finally single and available to be together! Why?  Because they SHOULD be together!  It’s an atrocity for them NOT to be together!  Let me put it this way, it’s as if Stamos started dating a groupie about a decade (or two) younger.  Cute, pretty, laughs at his jokes, they get along great, but he passed up the entire 2017 Sports Illustrated swim suit calendar for her.  Yes, he’s entitled to do what he wants.  Yes, they make a cute couple.  Yes, it works … … But he can do better. 

He’s fathering children with Eva Mendes for goodness sake.  See what I’m getting at?  Gosling & Stone were cute together in Crazy, Stupid, Love which turned a couple more heads than a typical commercial comedy does, which I’m happy that it did, but it wasn’t trying to smack you in the face either with its “take me serious because right out of the gate we’re telling you we’re an Oscar film and will smack you if you say otherwise”.  That was a fun, commercial film that held a little weight and let’s all be glad if it pulls any surprises come awards season.  La La Land is a “we better clean house come award season or there’ll be hell to pay!” kind of film.  So John Stamos needs to select the April edition swimsuit model (or start dating rumors with a credible, legit actress, someone like a Marion Cotillard) for the big party to impress investors for his latest project, and not the young groupie. 

Had our two leads been perfect (as this is an Oscar film and perfection is expected) I would be able to fully grasp this film and fully jump onboard the bandwagon.  Leads that take up just about all the screen time.  Time I’m being courted as an industry professional with, woo’d by the romance telling me to love it.  And I indeed loved a good handful of things that in anecdotal manner of reflection I’d squirm a little in my seat at the beauty and meaningful gestures being thrown my way.  The colorful expression revealing narrative in shadow, intuitive editing and shot selection bringing the scene full circle and keeping you in the loop of the overall direction of where this is headed, things that I nodded my head in approval of.  But in the grand scheme of things, the simple and I need more from it choreography between our leads of a man falling in love with a woman he could do a little better than.  Fighting for her love when he makes a mistake when Eva Mendes is watching a screener of this at home with his children.  Emma Stone emanating such innocence and purity of her character to reveal how beautiful her character Mia is when all I’m really thinking is who TRULY could’ve taken the heart of heartthrob Ryan Gosling and undeniably convinced me.  I believed it, stop complaining, just not to the point of the rest of the women who exited the theater worshipping this film are and who think this is the greatest movie to come around since Titanic.  All because the leads were good but not GREAT which is where it needs to be to claim top honors of the year.  They simply don't truly connect with us. To rip us apart and bring it all back again, laughing, smiling, crying, and rejoicing in the end having gone through this with them.  We only observe and understand at arm's length. Even the main melody questioning the stars that make up the city that has an alluring to it, takes an ever so slightly route that doesn’t TRULY get me where I need to be, in complete awe of this film … "but yeah it works though, I guess, whatever."  

To get to that point of leaving the theater in stunning awe, where all you can say is “wow”, all of these points that seem tiny but really aren’t, need to be on point.  My high school football coaches would always tell us, “it’s the little things that kill us”, for they really aren’t little.  So, casting the absolutely best people is key.  But, let’s squeeze in a John Legend concert in the middle of this film as that’ll surely up the sales of this project.  Seeing celebrities of other worlds claim a stake in this one always puts me off.  Though Legend’s part was minor, which made things only worse and felt more of “let’s try to squeeze in one of his concerts” and less of “this is necessary to complete this perfectly crafted story we have here.”  A musical number that pays homage to its forefathers of Hollywood by romancing those very forefathers with a love letter to them is The Artist (one of the best movies to come around in awhile).  No words can completely describe how amazed I was by this as I still talk about this film to this day and I’m glad The Academy finally agrees with me on this one. If Hollywood is going to engage in group think, let it be because of something like this, or Birdman. With La La Land, it's more of why we put Hollywood in a box as dancing monkeys for our entertainment, to put away when reality calls us back. 

This film is a wonderful time at the movies, make no mistake.  It will capture the hearts of many, make no mistake. Just like the last one, make no mistake.  Be it deservingly so or not, make no mistake.  Chazelle keeps it realistic, believable, yet still entertaining, which is rare with romances, something I truly appreciated.  It just wasn’t quite all the way there and complete for me to “forget what I thought going into this, now I whole heartedly believe in this project and am fully on board the bandwagon!”  As was the same with Chazelle’s last film, Whiplash.  So twice now, this director has severely beaten the door to my heart and just about opened it up.  If he just asks for the key in a proper manner though, I’m sure that will be a fateful day.

La La Land (2016)
Musical, 128 Minutes, PG-13
Written & Directed By: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosmarie DeWitt, & J.K. Simmons

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