The opening number of La La Land, the new musical from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle, is the appropriate first impression of Los Angeles: a gridlocked freeway of cars sitting idle. Only, instead of the frustration and cynicism that would arise from this situation, people burst into hopeful song and dance among the stalled cars. In a rush of agile choreography, a rainbow color scheme, and immense depth staging, a flurry of people dance on hoods and sing of the wonder of Hollywood sunshine.
At the culmination of this tune, we are introduced to Mia (Emma Stone), another hopeful going over audition sides in her car as she waits, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who honks aggressively at her when she refuses to move once the congestion breaks up.
With the first few scenes, La La Land presents itself as a
wash of style with classical sensibilities and modern touches. To this end, the film exists in a state of timelessness, a fantastical Hollywood dreamscape that cherry picks from the best of the city’s various iterations.
While clearly close to modern day, given cell phones and Priuses are foreground props, different eras of entertainment media overlap on top of each other to create Chazelle’s vision of Hollywood. A musical act featuring mimicry mirrors both classical musicals and vaudeville theater. A party sequence features an ’80s cover band that plays A-Ha and Flock of Seagulls, while classical jazz and “modern” jazz become of thematic importance throughout the film. And the face of Ingrid Bergman seems to loom over everything.
The ill-defined world is, quite simply, the world of Hollywood painting a magical picture of the ideal Hollywood.
Sleek production design dominates this timeless Hollywood, using broad strokes to paint an almost gaudy rendition of classical Hollywood. Solid primary color costume schemes and the activation of multiple planes of action to highlight extravagant sets contribute to a tapestry display.
Chazelle knows how to use cinema as a means of storytelling. In this film, characters and dialogue do less than a single shot can, for better or worse. Blocking and movement in oners make a simple dialogue scene feel lively, not relying on simple reverses to engage in conversation (save for one pivotal interaction that is strikingly still). Staging on multiple planes of action illustrate distance and closure between characters when no words are exchanged.
This outwardly stylish style, the vibrancy and panache by which Chazelle constructs his dream Los Angeles, is not perfection. Lens flares and fantastical shots, as when a group of people are framed within a glass of champagne, are more distracting than they are endearing. The blocky color design, too, is only as extravagant as they are reminiscent of technicolor simplicities from a time when color alone was an innovation.
All this said, the production design is a throwback with passion. It is pure love of cinema personified in backdrops and lighting patterns. What this leads to, though, is that the film falls into a trap with characters that are similarly thrown back. The characters are by no means nuanced, but are mere archetypes.
Indeed, the film is not a character-strong narrative, as much as it might want to be. Pure artists fighting a cynical system can be found time and time again in cinema. It is the type of narrative that Hollywood loves to tell (and then award Oscars to), but it comes at the cost of novelty.
Chazelle’s Whiplash takes the pure artist character and presents him different and with an original take on narration. La La Land distinctly lacks this same unique drive. The film uses a meta-textual self-awareness and genre pastiche as a means of hiding this lack of narrative strength. But the weakness exists all the same. Not that a simple romance is problematic, especially given the bravura of the stylistic output, but still.
La La Land is bold, bright, and beautiful in its audio-visual display. Sonics, cinematics, and theatrics are all played to a crisp high note. The film is a majestic excursion that is a rare output from modern day Hollywood. It is also rudimentary in its approach to character and narration. Whether this matters a great deal or not is a matter of debate. The film is a conventional romance narrative wrapped in a lush, vibrant overcoat of musical nostalgia. And it will engage your senses unlike any other film this year.
La La Land: A-
You would have to be a cynic not to fall in love with the charm of La La Land, and I am one. So while I do not find myself tripping head over heels by this genre-revitalization picture, I see the simple joys in it. The craft is there, not to mention the wonderful performances I have heretofore neglected to mention. But the characterizations do not allow these performances to breathe.
The film has beautiful lighting and cinematography, exquisite sound design and scoring, and stellar editing. But if you are looking for a character study a la Whiplash, you will be left wanting more.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)