With last Tuesday’s announcement of the nominees for this year’s Oscar® awards, LA LA LAND is well on its way to becoming Hollywood’s most award-nominated and most award-winning film. It already swept the Golden Globes® a few weeks ago taking all seven categories in which it was nominated and setting a record for most Globes won by a single film. With the film finally coming to Hong Kong, it’s inevitable that people will be flocking to the cinemas to see it but is all the hype warranted? My answer is yes and no.
In case you’ve been shut off from the media for months, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing considering all the alternative facts that have been spun and shared recently, LA LA LAND tells the story in song and dance of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, THE BIG SHORT), an aspiring jazz pianist who dreams of one day owning his own jazz bar, and Mia (Emma Stone, IRRATIONAL MAN), a struggling actress who ekes out a living as a barista on a Hollywood studio lot. The two cross paths one sunny day on a gridlocked Los Angeles freeway in a bit of road rage, and they interact again a short time later when Mia comes into a restaurant where Sebastian is passionlessly banging out Christmas tunes for equally bored diners. Months later, Mia spots Sebastian again at a party where he’s now playing keyboards in a ’80s pop cover band. This time, though, they talk, sing and dance in a routine that takes them to the famous “Cathy’s Corner” overlook on Mt. Hollywood Drive.
The pair finally get together but their bliss doesn’t last long as their ascending stars take them in different directions. Sebastian gets a very well-paying job in band (fronted by the absolutely fabulous John Legend) and Mia finally gets the acting break she’s been working so hard for. The film fast forwards five years and the two are well settled in their separate lives, both doing what they set out to do.
Full marks go to director Damien Chazelle (WHIPLASH) for creating a contemporary musical in the vein of classical Hollywood directors Busby Berkeley, Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly and French director Jacques Demy. If you’ve ever seen any of their films you’ll notice the similarities. LA LA’s opening sequence, “Another Day of Sun” is a colourful and current riff on Demy’s 1967, THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT. The follow-up number, “Someone In the Crowd” is a cross between WEST SIDE STORY for its skirt-tugging strut and THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG for its use of primary colours. (Speaking of colour, full marks also go to the husband and wife team of production designers, David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds Wasco (PULP FICTION; INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) for their brilliant colour palate and to Swedish DP Linus Sandgren (AMERICAN HUSTLE; JOY) for his dazzling cinematography.)
Where the film succeeds is the story. It’s a feel-good, crowd pleasing, escapist yarn that is most needed in this Trumpian era of vitriol and 3 am tweets. Who wouldn’t want to sit in a dark room for two hours and eight minutes and get completely lost in a happy-clappy film like this? Although the film harks back to a much simpler time, it is generously infused with sly winks to contemporary realities that include hybrid cars, mobile phones and, as previously mentioned, ’80s pop cover bands. The final act, too, with its alternative ending, is beautifully executed. Many people have expressed their disappointment with this glimpse at what could have been, saying that it saddened them. I respectfully disagree with them. Sebastian and Mia both got what they wanted. It’s a bittersweet victory for them but it’s a victory nevertheless.
Where the film disappoints, however, is with the casting of Gosling and Stone. Yes, they have great chemistry (this is their third film together) and they’re both quite lovely to look at, but neither can sing or dance exceptionally well. There has been much online chatter about how wonderful Stone’s voice is but let’s be honest – the songs are not overly challenging to sing. They’re karaoke, meant to be accessible to everyone and anyone who tries to sing them. The same can be said for the dancing. Gosling is no Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, and Stone is no Cyd Charisse or Ginger Rogers. Imagine how much better this film would have been had it starred the likes of Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick or Lea Michele… or Drake and Janelle Monáe. I guess we’ll find out when the film transitions to the Broadway stage… and you know it will.
One of my colleagues referred to LA LA LAND as a film made by people who have never seen a Golden Era Hollywood musical for audiences who have never seen a Golden Era Hollywood musical. Yes, LA LA LAND is a wonderful homage to those bygone days but there is no comparison. Like THE REVENANT from last year, LA LA LAND is an over-hyped film. Yes, it’s good but it’s not great, and it’s certainly not deserving of all the laurels being thrown at it.
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