Out of all the Oscar nominees of this year, La La Land is clearly everyone’s sweetheart. The last film to accumulate this many nominations was Titanic, thus we know from experience to take anyone’s assessment that La La Land is the best movie ever made with a grain of salt, and I knew to go into it with modest expectations – as excited as I was to see an old-school live-action musical in modern times.
The film brings to mind this classical era of film early by opening on a variation of the Summit Entertainment logo that seems to belong in the 1940’s and boasting its use of CinemaScope and Technicolor. Its title derived after a nickname used for the city of Los Angeles, La La Land follows the romance between Mia (Emma Stone), a cafeteria cashier at the Warner Bros. lot yearning to be on the big screen, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a restaurant-hopping piano player. Fittingly enough, it all begins with a piece of music.
One of the major complaints that people have brought forth now that critics have masturbated this movie to the point that it’s cool to hate on, is pertaining to the story. Once all the meticulous musical performances, production design, camera work, and color choices are stripped away, the film is little more than your average “follow your dreams” tale coupled with the obligatory love story beats of any generic rom-com. This is mostly true, but I think you’ll find that this one doesn’t end the way in which rom-com fans would like it to. In my language, that is not a complaint.
Fortunately, Stone and Gosling play their roles with devotion and lovability (I need not remind anyone how Emma Stone could make any character irresistible, even an in-Universe bad actor), and they’re supported by almost equally prodigious talent. This includes, but isn’t limited to J.K. Simmons as a restaurant owner who talks precisely as a J.K. Simmons character should, John Legend as the leader of a jazz band, Rosemarie Dewitt as Sebastian’s caring sister, and so on.
The musical numbers are about as fun, well-choreographed and well-shot as they come. As for that final point especially, none of the whip-pans you’ll see in the film were faked in post. There’s a fascinating video on Twitter showing writer-director Damien Chazelle instructing camera man Ari Robbins as he pans from one performer to the other within the blink of an eye and in perfect synchronization with the music, which is but one many great pieces of cinematography in the film.
However, none of the singing scenes are ever as grand or immaculate as the opening one, which I believe also features more singers and dancers than any subsequent number. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are technically not too fantastic at singing and dancing either, yet the performances and characters make it more endearing than perhaps it ought to be.
La La Land‘s immense success, especially amongst people working in Hollywood, does make more sense to me now that I’ve seen it and know how much it itself loves movies. If it did have a more original story tying it all together or maybe if the romantic comedy tropes were a little more self-aware, it would have been better. Also, in spite of my faith that this film will win quite a bit of the awards it’s nominated for, it’ll be interesting to see if it beats out Hail Caesar!, another film that felt like a journey through time to an older Hollywood, in terms of Best Production Design.
So, is it as good as Hollywood themselves would have you believe? Well, not quite (it’s certainly not up there with Chazelle’s previous outing Whiplash), but it is damn hard not to enjoy. It has a cheerful sweetness to it that’s hard to resist and every once in a while it’s fine to have a piece of candy between gourmet meals like Moonlight. If for no other reason than a trip down nostalgia lane for those of you who have loved movies since the Fred Astaire age, or at least are well acquainted with it, you may want to see this after all. It has the music, the editing, the look, the feel; everything but re-animated corpses of the actors its celebrating. We might wanna get ILM on that.