Damien Chazelle took the world by storm when his second feature film, Whiplash, showed up a couple of years ago. When I say the world, I include myself. That was my favorite movie of 2014, might be in my top 10 of all time. I say this to preface what I am about to say about La La Land, Chazelle’s first feature since Whiplash. What I have to say is this: La La Land was good, but I didn’t love it. I had incredibly high expectations based off of who was behind the camera, who was in front of the camera, and all the buzz coming off of the premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and elsewhere. So La La Land was kind of destined to fall short for me, even if by the slightest margin. But allow me to elaborate.
I’ll start with what I loved and get to the things I didn’t love so much later because the things I didn’t will spoil the movie if you haven’t seen it. What I loved were the lead characters. Mia and Sebastian, played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, respectively, are three-dimensional people that I understand completely. Their motivations are clear, their romantic involvement is believable, and the actors deserve a lot of credit for bringing heart to the whimsy of the characters. They have several dance numbers with one another that are all very captivating. Mandy Moore deserves lots of recognition for her choreography work on the film. No, not that Mandy Moore:
this Mandy Moore:
Also, sidenote, that’s really Ryan Gosling playing the piano the whole time. That’s commitment. I know the guy can play guitar and has a band, but holy crap.
What else did I love? Well, Damien Chazelle proves even further with this film that he is a force to be reckoned with. He has now made three films centered around jazz and two of them are absolutely riveting. Sorry, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, I just couldn’t get into you. His love of golden age Hollywood musicals and golden age cinema in general is on display here. He puts a nice new spin on the aesthetic, though, by using modern technology to its fullest.
Working with Chazelle is Linus Sandgren, the cinematographer, who gave us an intimacy during those song and dance numbers that we never got to see in Singin’ in the Rain. The camera is on the move to maintain verisimilitude with the smooth rhythm of the music and movement of the characters. What was really special was when they weren’t singing or dancing and there were more serious conversations happening the camera took on a totally different aesthetic, that of the shot-reverse shot variety. This really makes you feel like a participant in the scenes. We move when they move and when they’re static we’re static too.
Again returning to work with Chazelle is Justin Hurwitz for the music of the film. I didn’t actually love this music as much as I did the stuff in Whiplash, but “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” were certainly standouts. I can’t wait to see Gosling and Stone perform “City of Stars” at the Oscars. I’d throw in for that one before whatever Disney puts forward from Moana for best original song.
Now, onto the stuff I didn’t love so much. I’m going to give you a [SPOILER ALERT] right now. I am going to talk about the ending of the film specifically and a few other specific story details. If the plot isn’t what you’re seeing this for or have already seen the film, read on. If you don’t want to know, stop here.
[I SAID SPOILER ALERT]
[THIS IS THE LAST WARNING, SPOILERS TO FOLLOW]
Still here? Okay, let’s chat. So this film is supposed to be a “love letter” to old Hollywood musicals, to LA, to lots of things. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but in old Hollywood musicals that involved a romance, don’t the girl and the guy always overcome all the obstacles and end up together? In La La Land, Gosling and Stone don’t end up together. WHAT?! I hear you saying. Don’t worry, I said the same thing. Unfortunately, I realized after the film that I should have known it was going to end this way.
Early on, Mia mentions Casablanca twice. You know, Casablanca, the only film in classic cinema canon that’s a romance where the romantic pair don’t end up together? Yeah, I get it, Chazelle. Classic cinema didn’t always end with the guy and girl together. I. Don’t. Care. Put those two together. Crazy, Stupid, Love would’ve sucked if Gosling and Stone didn’t get together in the end. We want to see those two together! Another parallel with Casablanca that should’ve been a tipoff comes right at the end, just in case you’re still holding out hope. Mia and her husband show up at Sebastian’s club he owns. His jazz club. Who else owned a club? Yup. Rick from Casablanca. And who shows up with her husband to that club? Yup. Ilsa from Casablanca.
I was so mad when I realized that yes, this is how Chazelle is ending this film. This epilogue comes as a “five years later” type message on screen, which I argue should have been cut off from the film entirely. Yes, the music that plays over Sebastian’s fantasy there at the end is amazing, but I don’t care.
The other problem with that epilogue is it creates a structural problem for me from a screenwriting perspective. The film is split into four sections, each one being a season. When it comes all the way back around and we see “Winter… Five Years Later” I thought to myself, hey, we saw winter already. This is sloppy. I already thought the movie could’ve been tightened up a little bit. The 128 minute runtime was a bit much if you ask me. Granted, old school musicals are long a lot of the time, but I just do not see the need for that five years later, Damien Chazelle. That’s all I’ll say. I’m still a little bitter and need more time to decide whether I’ll come to appreciate this more.
Note: I saw this a second time to try again. Still loved the first 90%. Then the finale killed it for me. Again.