Surprise! It’s a musical review!
by Thom Yee and a special guest
I’ve never outright announced, proclaimed or demanded that GOO Reviews will not be reviewing musicals, in fact it’s something we’ve done a few times in the past, but more recently, under my editorship (i.e., I’m the only one left who writes our full-length reviews on a regular basis), it’s something I thought would at least be implied going forward. And yet here we are.
The release of La La Land was something that had been causing me actual apprehension for most of last year. I was conflicted about the movie because while it was going to be a musical, and thus something I could probably ignore, it was also likely to be a headline-grabbing, award-nominated movie that I’d most likely have to pay some attention to.
The one thing that made La La Land something I almost dreaded though, was that it was also going to be the next movie from Damien Chazelle, the co-writer of 10 Cloverfield Lane, one of our best-reviewed movies of 2016 (and an early favourite for best movie of 2016), and even more importantly, the director/writer of Whiplash, one of my favourite movies of all time. It’s not that hard to express the feeling you get when the next movie from one of your favourite new directors turns out to be in a genre you dislike (it’s kind of like the feeling parents get when their son or daughter tells them they’re moving to the southwest United States to do something with turquoise), but it’s a bit more difficult to put into words exactly what I was feeling as I walked into the theatre to see if La La Land really was one of the best movies of the year.
If you went ahead and clicked on that “best-reviewed movies of 2016” link above and scrolled down to look through the full list, you might have noticed that La La Land not only made it onto the Top 10, but it placed pretty highly on it as well. To be clear, that wasn’t against my wishes. I guess it’s a bit of a spoiler to tell you here, right in the introduction, that I really liked La La Land, but really, we almost never write about things we don’t like here at GOO Reviews. I guess that’s a bit of a spoiler for this entire website actually.
What’s it about?
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling jazz pianist. In Hollywood. They go through some stuff together. And sing and dance along the way.
I think the last time I used the word “whimsy” was in my review of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Well, I know that’s the last time I used ‘whimsy’ in a review, putting it that way was just an affectation, something I did so that that first sentence would strike you in a certain way. Anyway, the point is that whimsy is something The Grand Budapest Hotel and La La Land have in common (though not in the same way), while the feeling you’re supposed to have gotten from that sentence is that it’s not a common thing to find in movies today (at least not in movies this well done). You can say one thing while meaning another. That’s kind of what La La Land is about. It’s a musical, but its plot is coherent and stands on its own; it’s a love story, but it’s tragically anti-romantic; it’s a story about Hollywood, but it’s doing something else entirely with its narrative. It’s meta like that.
Interestingly, neither Emma Stone nor Ryan Gosling (both of whom have received best actress/actor Oscar nominations for La La Land) were the original choices for Mia and Sebastian. Those roles were originally intended for Miles Teller and Emma Watson. Without speculating too much on why that didn’t happen (i.e., one seems to be a bit of a d*ck on set and the other did Beauty and the Beast instead [I’ll leave it to you figure out who’s who]), and after having seen the final result, Teller and Watson seem strikingly like all kinds of wrong for the movie. In fact, had La La Land gone forward with those two, I don’t actually think it would have been a good movie at all. La La Land really has to be exactly and precisely what it is or the whole thing doesn’t make any sense. And that includes being a musical.
Is it any good?
It’s kind of hard for me to admit that La La Land is as good as it is. Part of that is obviously because it’s a musical, a genre I have trouble with because it’s so far removed from reality (way more removed than superhero movies as far as I’m concerned), but the even bigger part is that one of its fundamental message is so hard to get behind. “Here’s to the ones who dream”, you’ll hear that in the movie sung by Emma Stone’s Mia, and while it speaks to the struggles she and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian face as they attempt to make their ways from aspiring and struggling Hollywood actors and musicians to successful and respected, it speaks to one of the inevitabilities of this movie: That everything’s going to be okay. And that’s monumentally naïve, painfully so in the age we live in, a relic from a pre-Trump administration and a message that was quickly losing its relevance even in the pre-Bush era. I don’t want to politicize this review any more than I just did, but the idea that thinking big and working hard will bring a commensurate reward is one that, today, is not only near death but is being actively beaten further into death with every day that passes, and a movie that’s telling you holding on to your dreams is worth it is just begging for a similar beating. Just ask all the college grads drowning in debt who would be lucky to find an unpaid internship. Just ask all the welders and machinists losing their jobs and their ability to support their families to automation. Just ask all the extras and even most of the supporting characters who were on the La La Land set what a disheartening, soul-shattering time they’re having trying to become the next Emma Stone or Ryan Gosling.
But it works. It works because that’s not all it’s trying to say. You can sit through La La Land and take in the sheer spectacle of it all, embrace the joy inherent in the musical form, and appreciate the devotion necessary for actors like Stone and Gosling (who don’t come from a song and dance background [unless you count this]) to do what they do in this movie, and just leave it at that, as something surprisingly easy to enjoy, but there’s more going on here. It works because it’s thoughtful and introspective enough to admit that for your dreams to come true, you need at least a little luck and if you want it that badly, it’ll come at a cost, and if you ever get there, it might not look like what you’d envisioned. And because it takes all the way till the end of the movie to get there and break your heart in the process, it’s something that stays with you.
Can I get a second opinion?
Why yes, yes you can. Like Thom (although putting it in a different way), I agree that La La Land succeeded in spite of the fact that it’s an ode to Hollywood glitz and glamour, not because of it. This film is an Oscar frontrunner because Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood. It’s a little vain that way. People in the industry like knowing that everybody else is still pushing their noses up against the glass, desperately trying to catch a look at the silver-screen wonder and big-name fame inside. Personally, I hate movies like that. They feel like they’re pandering to industry members by giving them the exact things they love, along with a dark room and a bottle of lotion to really complete the whole experience. But while the film is definitely about that longing to break into the business and do something artistically validating and become Someone Important, it’s also about how life just doesn’t turn out the way we want it to. Or at least we don’t get to our destination in quite the way we think we will.
In the case of Mia and Sebastian, they’re two fairly ordinary but talented people who had the good fortune to meet each other and fall in love and encourage each other to pursue their dreams. They also had the colossally bad fortune to go about those dreams in a less-than-optimal way. That wasn’t anyone’s fault, just the way things so often go. At the end of the film, we get treated to a glimpse of how Mia’s and Sebastian’s lives could have looked together if they’d made just a few different choices, if they’d made their relationship more of a priority. The problem is, they met when they already had dreams: deeply ingrained dreams that shaped who they were and what they wanted out of life. And despite how badly they wanted to be together, these two crazy kids just couldn’t quite figure out how to balance what they wanted with who they wanted. They had no way of knowing that, had they stuck together, they could have achieved everything they wanted and still stayed together. Where they ended up wasn’t bad, just different. As a viewer who’s been trained to root for the happy ending and the Big Kiss, however, that’s incredibly frustrating. And I love that, because the best movies always make me feel something other than just entertained.
So should I see it?
That depends. Do you like wistful, charming love stories between attractive (but not so attractive that they make you feel bad about yourself) young people who have amazing chemistry and equally amazing dance moves? Do you like modern musicals that include all the things you love about old-timey musicals, like duets that everybody knows the lyrics to and nobody feels awkward about or mentions again after they happen, or dream sequences where you’re not quite sure it’s real but something feels off and when it’s over you feel both relieved and disappointed? Do you like stories that make you feel all kinds of warm and fuzzy while simultaneously sad and really motivated to follow your dreams and more fond of your significant other and even a little bit angry that everyone can’t just be happy?
If you don’t, I would like to direct your attention to Mad Max: Fury Road, which has none of those things but does have universal appeal. If you do like all those things, however, get yourself to a theatre and check out La La Land. If you’re anything like me, it’ll make you want to pop in West Side Story or My Fair Lady and have a grand old sing-along. It’ll make you question what you’re doing with your life in all the best ways. It’ll lift you up, bring you crashing right back down, and — without quite knowing how you got there — help you back up and tell you to get back out there and do what you love already… hopefully with someone you love to help you along the way.
Thanks Grace. And now for our closing thoughts:
At this point, no matter how shallow and self-congratulatory the Oscars have become (and really always have been), they’ve penetrated so deeply into our entertainment culture that most of us watch them even if we have no skin in the game. Granted, there’s not usually a whole lot to do on Sunday nights anyway, but most of us still have nominees we’re secretly rooting for and most of us talk about them the day after. The weird thing about La La Land in particular is that, despite it being the favourite in several categories, including Best Picture, it’s the one movie that I’ve heard a lot of people say they’re not going to see no matter what. Because it’s a musical. And at least one of us here gets that. But we both think there’s a chance that if you open your mind to what it is, there’s a chance you just might fall in love.
By telling a good, fantastical, and uplifting story that’s also tempered and surprisingly grounded, and surrounding it with all of the Hollywood pageantry you didn’t know you wanted to see, La La Land does things with your heart that most movies never come close to. It’s about the furthest thing from social reality, and it falls down hard in the face of political issues like gender and racial equality, but if you’re open to it, it can provide you with the light to find your way out of the despair of such disparities and remind you of how good it feels to do something you love.
Our La La Land final score