I’ve always loved the phrase “La La Land.” It reminds me of my dad, who often used the moniker as he’d drive my family from the San Francisco Bay down the 5 and onto the 405. As we entered the land of palm trees, I’d envision the other passengers stuck in traffic next to me singing “la la la” as they waited not-so-patiently for the parking-lot freeway to pick back up again. For me this pet name of my now-home continually reminds me why I love living here: Wouldn’t the world be a more dynamic, happier place if people went through life singing?
So from the first moment I heard about the release of a movie, a musical no less, with the title of my favorite LA nickname, needless to say I was excited. It helped that the film was set to star two actors, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who’ve not only proven their onscreen chemistry in another Los Angeles-based movie, Crazy, Stupid, Love, but also their individual prowesses (The Big Short, Drive, Blue Valentine, and The Notebook, to name a few for Gosling, and for Stone, the three-time host of Saturday Night Live’s ability to lead the cast into hilarious skits, a feat not many can accomplish, for me is the mark of a talented actor).
So perhaps it was my too-high hopes that made this movie a disappointment.
To be fair, it wasn’t all bad. In the meet-cute moment of this classic LA tale, set on a traffic-jammed freeway, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician with dreams of opening an authentic jazz club, slams his horn at Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who’s too focused on learning her lines to keep up with the flow of traffic, only to have her walk in on him playing piano at a bar on Christmas. Through Hollywood parties, tours through the Colorado Bridge in Pasadena and up to the Griffith Observatory, their love affair comes to life amidst sunset-colored cinematographic vistas and primary colored costumes.
The opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” which shuts down the 10-405 merger and made my Monday morning traffic jam fantasy come to life with dancers snapping through lanes of cars, pirouetting past other passengers, and singing to their hearts content. And the “A Lovely Night” dance scene was as charming as it comes. Gosling–and to a lesser extent Stone–would’ve benefited from some more vocal lessons, but their chemistry kept the momentum going.
John Legend’s performance and the focus on jazz were also strong points of the film, and ones that made me reconsider the definition of musical. Legend’s character, Keith, the innovative leader of the jazz band, has one of the most poignant lines of the movie: “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” This line and the focus on jazz throughout the film are a reminder of the power of music and of our need to reinvent it, to be open to new directions, whether in jazz or the use of music in film.
And there’s a part of me that appreciates this focus on jazz, on the instrumental, on the lack of lyrics for a certain number of songs. The film made me go home and listen to Thelonious Monk, dive deeper into my New Orleanian soul’s unquenchable desire to learn more about the music that shook the world. But it was too much jazz, too open to interpretation, too free flowing. I could’ve gotten past the lack of lyrics in La La Land, the need for more words, more narrative, if the story had more grit.
Ultimately, I wasn’t invested in the characters, and even having my beloved city as a character wasn’t enough. There are plenty of other, better films with LA as character (LA Story, Sunset Boulevard, and Chinatown), not to mention books (plenty of narratives David Ulin or Joan Didion, Paint it Black by Janet Fitch), which I’d rather re-watch or -read.
What we have in La La Land is (SPOILER ALERT) a movie about two characters who have some sort of enchanted yet ho hum love affair. In the end, rather than face six months apart, they choose their careers and end up leading separate, albeit successful, lives. Maybe I’m biased because my husband and I, my sister and her husband, my best friend and her husband, and countless others I know and love have made long distance work. Whether for six weeks, six months, or longer, in our modern mobile society, we often have to let our careers (or education) take center stage while our relationship molds to the burden of long distance. But what I’ve found, is that if the relationship is strong enough, it survives, even thrives and brings couples to a deeper place of love and knowledge.
I digress, but for me, why am I supposed to care about a couple that inspired each other but wasn’t strong enough to do what they loved while still remaining in love, together?
I do tend to be a harsher critic for movies that don’t have a cliched happy ending, and with this one, writer-director Damien Chazelle shows the viewer that ending. It’s right there written into the script in the final montage of Mia and Sebastian’s life as it could’ve been. So what I garner is that their love wasn’t true. Fate brought them together with a traffic jam, and maybe it was so they would push each other to achieve their career dreams, but that’s it, and that’s not really a story I want to watch, in musical form or other. Give me true love in a musical, or tragedy if you must, but not mediocre and mundane.
Despite its flaws and failures, the film is worth watching—though not worth the theater prices—especially for any Angeleno. And I do plan to purchase the soundtrack and daydream about dancing with Stone and Gosling during my morning commute.