La La Land is a new musical for the twenty-first century. Focusing on a jazz musician and a frustrated ingenue trying to make their dreams come true in a world increasingly difficult to make it big, both must face the reality of the compromises and sacrifices required of relationships and finding our one happy life. Beautiful costumes highlight Gosling and Stone’s effective performances as their starry-eyed love energizes them to dance through a familiar Hollywood Los Angeles. This film is an enjoyable romp through the original musicals of yesteryear, and it brings fresh hope that a new generation of original Hollywood Musicals will make their way through the studios for us to enjoy. As it is, remakes and Broadway are simply not enough. Neither is fame.
As a huge fan of musicals, I was excited to finally get around to watching this. I was concerned about my reception of it after reading the wide variety of reactions and reviews in the periodicals I get. Rather than catch it at the theater, I grabbed it from the Redbox, and here we are.
The opening number – something that really needs to set the mood for a musical and capture the attention of an audience – was boring and mediocre for me. As a matter of fact, its scale was interesting, but its mediocrity seemed to set the stage for the musical and I didn’t even understand how it matched. That is the central idea of my review, but before that, a quick summary-based, spoiler-free review…
We have two characters who both want something. He wants a future in music, she wants a future in a man and a future in Hollywood. They seem to both literally and figuratively dance off one another, uncertain if they want to pursue what the other is offering or if it is just another relationship that goes nowhere. Will he get his Jazz club and a career? Will she get him? Will she make it in Hollywood? Will he start liking her? Will she stop pretending she doesn’t?
But there is a lot in this film that doesn’t match for me.
The musical doesn’t seem to know its audience, nor the style it wants to be. It opens with the Cinemascope logo, then we have a bunch of plain people in the opening number, then we have two different people who end up looking for goals and making it in some ways that are very much outside of normal. This isn’t a rags-to-riches story as much as it is a trajectory that doesn’t match real life – the almost fantasized version of what anyone in show business wants. It seems to want to be a musical for everyone and a modern take on the genre, but then it contradicts itself with some dazzling old Hollywood numbers and wants you to take both seriously. This becomes a problem because as much as it is trying to do both, it actually ends up alienating itself somehow and not achieving either. When I watch Hedwig, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or Dancer in the Dark, I am expecting a very normal story with extraordinary circumstances – they have modern music, I can relate to the characters, and direction that takes risks. La La Land did that in some places. When I watch Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I, West Side Story, or The Sound of Music, I am expecting Big Big Big, and I can relate to the characters with a direction that doesn’t take risks but is big! La La Land tries to do that in some places, but in doing both it misses both, and in many ways the both easily and blatantly contradicts each other.
As for the fame and fortune of the main characters, they want to live lives opposite of the lives that they are constantly pursuing, and I have a hard time understanding why they either thought their relationship would work without compromise or that it would work without making conscious decisions to know they would be apart for long periods of time. That said, they were both pursuing lives that would eventually have an expiration date in the grand scheme of things, so are they just impatient? Selfish? That unaware of their circumstances that they can’t seem to figure out how to make it work? There were a lot of questions as to how they ended up where they ended up… or not. If anything, the best number was the final one, and even then I have a hard time understanding how their relationship can’t work since it was simply the artistic friendship and camaraderie and not the romantic present-ness that worked best for them.
It is important to note that my issues are wholly with the script and the execution, but Stone and Gosling’s performances are great. They embody these characters and are all in with their roles, but I do wonder sometimes if great performances can carry a storyline that lacks so much.
I simply can’t tell what this film was trying to achieve, and that was frustrating. I sat through it as it searched for an identity. I came away not knowing whether I liked it or not, or even what it was, just like its protagonists did with each other.