La La Land is presented in Cinemascope, the definitive wide open, space-forever film format. It struck me as odd that the film opens on an LA freeway where the cars are bumper-to-bumper, with everyone stuck in their vehicles in the hot southern California sun. Instead of enjoying the sweep of the wide screen, I immediately felt claustrophobic. Then a young woman opens her car door and comes out singing, followed by several other women and men who join in the song—only I couldn’t understand what they were singing. These supposedly ordinary people begin dancing, but the dancing is only “okay” because, I think, the director doesn’t want them to break out of being ordinary commuters. Is this a musical or what? Mostly, it’s what.
Emma Stone is an actress who’s working as a barista in a movie lot café, looking for her big break, Ryan Gosling is a jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own “pure” jazz club and earns his living playing standards in a supper club. I seem to like Ryan Gosling no matter what he does, and I like him in this. He has his moments as a dancer, but he’s not a dancer. Neither of our stars can sing. There were times when I felt like Rose in Gypsy, wanting to yell at Ryan and Emma – “Sing out, Louise!” There are no memorable songs or lyrics in this movie, no melodies you hum to yourself as you leave the theatre.
I blame the director. Musicals, real musicals, always make me want to sing and dance. They lift me out of the day-to-day into a world where the constraints of reality are cast off, and whatever the story, people have to sing about it, and dance, dance, dance. In La La Land, you recognize the set-up for the musical numbers, which is fine—but the numbers never quite deliver. Most have a promising start, but seldom have a definite close. The only number that really succeeds is at the end, a long fantasy sequence that has a sense of all-out joy and pays no attention to the “ordinary.” It also works because no one sings. There aren’t any voices that transport you in this movie.
When I heard the director Damien Chazelle interviewed by Terry Gross, I realized that Chazelle made this movie for people who don’t like musicals. He thought if he went full-out musical, the skeptics in the audience would get up and leave—he used the analogy of putting a frog in boiling water; it feels the heat and jumps out. But if you put the frog in cold water, and gradually warm the water, the frog won’t realize it’s boiling and will just stay there and die. Thanks a lot, Mr. Chazelle. For those of us who love musicals, there was nothing for it but to sit in lukewarm water, awash in pretty settings and perfect lighting, bored by the mediocre voices and barely acceptable choreography.
The film is pleasant, I’ll give it that. And this review matters not one whit, because Hollywood is in love with La La Land. It swept the Golden Globes and will no doubt outperform every other movie at the Oscars. To each their own. As for me, I’ll take Chicago and Singin’ in the Rain. I can watch them again and again. One is dark and sexy and cynical. The other is innocent, romantic, and exuberant. Both movies commit to the form and deliver in no uncertain terms. Still, the fact that La La Land is winning awards and praise may mean that people still want and need the escape that movie musicals give us. And if that inspires more musicals, thumbs up, La La.