Writer/director Damien Chazelle has an interest in music. In all three of his feature length films, he explores drama surrounding musicians in beautiful, loving detail. La La Land is his first musical and, hopefully, it won’t be his last. He has the potential to be one of the great movie musical directors if he can find just the right balance of nostalgia and innovation in his future work.
I will level with you right away and say I don’t like La La Land. I have issues with the structure of the narrative and the balance between original music and book scenes. I’ll also point out that, before I began devouring every horror film I could get my hands on as a child, I exhausted my local video rental stores’ supplies of movie musicals and already was performing regularly. I also teach musical theater at this point. I know about book structure, balance, and tone when it comes to this genre.
If I think of La La Land as a film with music, rather than a film musical as advertised, I start to like it more. The musical sequences are my favorite in the film, but I’m rather fond of the story being told, as well. I just wish the two elements—the throwback fantasy of a big Golden Age musical and the quiet drama of a couple falling in love and struggling with their careers—were more fully integrated.
The opening fifteen minutes of La La Land writes a check anything shy of a fully sung movie musical wouldn’t be able to cash. Frankly, the only time I've seen this level of set-up work with such a clearly defined color palette and style is he Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and that literally is a sung through musical.
The film opens with a stunning sequence of all the would-be stars of Hollywood stuck in traffic, breaking out of their cars and taking to the streets to declare their passion for the arts. This is followed by another wonderful musical sequence in our protagonist Mia’s apartment, where her three actor friends sing and dance their way through an appeal to get Mia to go out to an industry party.
The original songs by Justin Hurwitz and theatrical composing team [Benj] Pasek and [Justin] Paul are wonderful. “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” instantly became one of my favorite songs from a musical, the opening song “Another Day of Sun” had me laughing and dancing along in the theater, and “City of Stars” has been stuck in my head for weeks. That’s a sign of a good musical score.
The issues come in when you begin to examine what, exactly, the story of La La Land deals in. You have Zeb, a jazz musician, and Mia, an actress, falling in love over their parallel dreams. They actually just talk past each other the entire film and provide no compelling argument for actually falling in love.
Zeb spends the entirety of the movie explaining why everyone else is wrong about every art form, including a particularly cringe-worthy scene where a privileged white man explains why every other approach except for his idealized, glossy historical interpretation of jazz music is wrong. Forget about him claiming the one true answer to a genre that is defined by improvisation and reinterpretation of familiar themes; he is the only person talking during a jazz club performance. Zeb and Mia are the only white people in the jazz club and he believes that he can use the black musicians as props to explain his outdated and woefully inaccurate interpretation of “true jazz” all for the purpose of wooing a romantic interest. It’s disgusting.
Let’s just say my favorite non-musical scene in the film is modern jazz superstar Keith reading Zeb to ash over his outdated and arguably offensive interpretation of jazz. I cheered out loud and applauded as Keith became my favorite character in this all-too-brief scene of oratory destruction. Tell me that story, instead.
Mia is nowhere near as upsetting a character to parse through. She just makes a lot of bad choices. Her first and biggest bad choice is listening to anything Zeb says and being charmed by his musicianship and sassy retro wardrobe. I don’t like Zeb and I don’t have to. I know you don't see every aspect of Mia and Zeb's lives in the film, but you see enough to know that Mia is not putting the work in to be a successful actor. Show me one scene of Mia in an acting class or, more likely, crashing a workshop and I'll believe that she has any reason at all to complain about never getting a part. Zeb doesn't need to prove his craft since he repeatedly shows off his beautiful piano chops; Mia doesn't show off her skills in any similar scene until I already gave up on her being serious about any choice in her life.
But here’s where interpretations of La La Land could and should differ. Does Damien Chazelle want you to like Zeb at all? Or Mia? Or Mia and Zeb together? Or any of these characters that are little more than stock types inspired by big Hollywood dreams? Or even believe they deserve the dreams they're chasing if they do nothing but complain?
Even when the film falls to indie clichés rather than Golden Age Musical clichés, there are no original ideas here. The story is all too familiar, allowing the mind to drift and actively engage with what is being presented. That, in itself, is perhaps the most accurate portrayal of jazz in the film; Chazelle sets up the arrangement of themes and you start spinning them into the narrative and tone you want. I think it's Chazelle's actual intention in the film based on his far more nuanced work in Whiplash and fairer evaluation of jazz in Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.
When La La Land is great, it’s some of the best cinema I’ve seen in recent memory; when it’s bad, it’s pretty insufferable. This is definitely a case of heightened expectations being unreachable for a knowledgeable filmgoer. I know too much about traditional and modern musicals to be swept up in nostalgia or the few departures from the rote musical romance formula. The year that also gave us Sing Street, Swiss Army Man (which is a musical and will be addressed here soon), and the initial release of The Lure (that killer mermaid musical getting its official US release in February) cannot honestly celebrate La La Land as something new.
It is technically well-made, the acting is great, and the score is catchy. That’s not a bad thing to go see, but understand that this film will not, as one of my students said about Dear Evan Hansen (Pasek & Paul’s new Broadway musical), cure your blindness, file your taxes, and take the SATs for you.