Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) has done it again. He has created an astounding movie with absolutely unlikable characters.
Of course, the characters in Whiplash are intentionally unlikable. They are pitted against each other, forcing the audience to reluctantly pick a side while getting swept up in the magical intensity. The characters in La La Land are supposed to be drawn to one another. While there is certainly still magic in the air, the film asks the audience to root for a couple just because, despite how irritating they may be.
After a stunning opening sequence that will leave you wondering why the rest of the movie isn’t nearly as fresh or diverse, the plotline centers around the boring relationship of two annoying people. It’s not exactly clear why they’re dating. Maybe it’s because the story asks for them to be together. Or maybe it’s that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have been together in two other movies (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad) so it just makes sense. Either way, their chemistry is familiar yet disconnected.
Sebastian (Gosling) is a talented pianist with a bit of a white saviour mentality surrounding the jazz industry. Sebastian believes that the musical style that originated in African-American communities during the 1920s is on its last lungs, and he is determined to save the genre by opening a traditionalist jazz club. Just what we need: A good old gentrification love story.
Like many people who become too impassioned with one thing and one thing alone, Sebastian becomes pretty intolerable. He is the type of person who doesn’t believe in listening to anything that anyone else has to say and that everybody else who doesn’t follow his line of view is doing it wrong. Two examples:
Early on in the film, he is given a second chance as a pianist for a restaurant. His boss, played by JK Simmons, has only one rule: play the set list. Sebastian can’t even make it through his first day back before breaking into improvisation. It’s an extraordinary scene where both of the characters look like absolute jerks, Sebastian for being unable to follow a simple rule and the boss for firing Sebastian for playing good music.
Later, Sebastian is offered a huge job as the pianist for a major band run by a former classmate, Keith (John Legend). Sebastian is absolutely repulsed by a perceived bastardization of jazz by Keith, and Keith’s seemingly reasonable comment that jazz is about innovation is likewise ignored. It’s only until he sees working in a massively successful band as a stepping stone towards building his club that he starts to reconsider.
Mia (Stone) is an actress who can’t seem to get a gig. She came to Hollywood to become a star, but is finding that the town is filled with a lot of talented people and a lot of busy casting directors. Through Mia, the film is able to glamorize 1950s and 1960s Hollywood cinema. It’s not clear what argument the movie is making about the state of the film industry, but there is certainly a lot of nostalgia. And nostalgia can be fine. But it can also be dangerous and misguided (see: the 2016 presidential election).
Still, although the characters are thoroughly frustrating, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone fully commit to the film. It’s an ambitious project. One wouldn’t expect either of them to star in a musical, but they hold their own. The singing leaves something to be desired, but their dancing is inspiring. Gosling is dynamic as usual, and Stone is generally just somewhat charismatic.
La La Land goes all in on its movie-musical promise, and the colorful costumes and sets make the movie fun to watch even if the scenes appeared in a random order. Shot on film, the movie is frequently reminiscent of movie musicals from the 1950s, despite its complete reliance on a shallow depth-of-field. And much like Whiplash, the editing is musical and fast-paced, building energy and tension through each scene.
The film is bookended by some wonderful scenes – with a redux that seems like a throwback to the Singing in the Rain ballet appearing at the end – but the story that is displayed in the middle is somewhat of a disappointment. This disappointment comes not only because La La Land is doing something that isn’t seen all that often in modern cinema, but that Whiplash was so much better.