Monday, January 23, 2017

La La Land (Film Review)

I saw La La Land just before New Year's with a friend who lives and works in L.A., and she was able to give me some insight into several properties.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie.  It was fun, visually appealing, and a delightful homage to the golden age of movie musicals.  That being said, there's a fair amount constructive criticism to be typed out.  Let's start with what we liked.

  • Diverse casting:  No, not in the leads; don't be silly.  Hollywood can't seem to handle that.  But in their "chorus," most notably in the opening number taking place during L.A. rush hour traffic, I was pleased to see people of all kinds of colors, ages, shapes, and sizes -- not just "typical musical theatre types" (y'know, lithe, wholesome-looking dancers in their 20s).  So that was nice.
  • So many colors!  The (mostly) primary colors of this film just pop all over the place making it visually appealing and sometimes downright stunning.  The color palette is part of what makes it such an homage to the movie musicals of yesterday (primary Singin' in the Rain, which I'll be referring to a lot during this review).  I was also pleased to see that Emma's four friends were all wearing different (though similarly styled) solid-color dresses -- a theatre standby to make it easy to find the characters on stage.  If we had seen them in any other numbers, I would have fully expected them to stay in their same color tones.  But look at this image and tell me you don't see the same?
"A Face in the Crowd," La La Land (2016)

From "Gotta Dance" Montage, Singin' in the Rain (1952)

  • The music -- wait, no, the jazz.  The score and orchestrations were lovely.  My date (who is much more versed in such things than I am) pointed out to me that the director of this film, Damien Chazzelle, is a jazz musician himself; the film Whiplash (2013) is his story.  So naturally he's going to pay special attention to the jazz; however, I think that may also be his blindspot, but we'll save that for the cons in a moment.
  • I enjoyed the dialogue and chemistry between Gosling and Stone:  "Can I borrow your outfit?  I have an audition later this week for a serious firefighter."
  • I particularly enjoyed all of the contemporary "interruptions."  Just when we'd find ourselves falling into "musical theatre territory," Chazzelle gives a delicious (modern) interruption:  car horns honking, a cell phone ringing, movie film breaking, et cetera.  Those touches keep the movie from becoming too saccharine.
  • The homages to older films, specifically movie musicals.  Here is another list/article by Aisha Harris at Slate of all of the tributes to those films of yore; I haven't read it yet because I didn't want it coloring my own initial thoughts, but I recommend it (and will be reading it shortly).  For La La Land, it starts with the "expansion" of the screen to the old "Cinemascope" logo (which only some people in the audience will get) and goes from there, including a swing around a lamp post a la Singin' in the Rain to the drive up to the Planetarium a la Rebel Without a Cause.
    • Sidenote:  I have seen some people claim the "dancing in the air" sequence was ridiculous/unbelievable/stupid, etc.  First off, if you are looking for reality in a musical -- any musical -- I'm afraid I have bad news for you.  Secondly, that dance sequence is an homage to many, many predecessors, including (but not limited to):
      • The "dream ballet" in Rogers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! (or almost any R&H musical)
      • Part of the "Gotta Dance" montage in Singin' in the Rain -- which has a dream sequence within a montage within a "what if" scenario
      • Gene Kelly's dance with Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (dancing with an animated mouse -- again, not looking for reality here).
      • "A Jolly Holiday" from Mary Poppins wherein they jump INTO a sidewalk chalk painting and dance with animated people...and penguins.
      • It even happens in non-musicals:  the dream/dance sequence in Susan Slept Here, starring Debbie Reynolds and Dick Powell (1954).
Those were all things I enjoyed.  Now the things I did not:
  • The songs.  While the jazz and the score were both good, not one of those songs was memorable.  Not one of them made me want to run out and buy the soundtrack or (better still) buy the sheet music to learn them.  Not. One.
  • The singing.  This is caused in part in how it's recorded (and when it's so very obvious the people on screen are not singing there) and partly the lack of the vocal training of the (non-)singers themselves, but everything sounded the same:  the same volume, the tone, the same wimpy, breathy vocalizations that show lack of confidence and lack of breath support.  Songs shouldn't all sound the same, nor should you sing them all the same.  We should hear things like piano, forte, pianissimo, etc.  Unfortunately, all of these songs were done in that "Gosh, I hope I'm not wrong, so I'm going to sing/speak quietly" piano mode.  Listen to Sarah Michelle Gellar on the Buffy:  The Vampire Slayer musical episode, and you'll hear exactly what I'm talking about.  And this is why I think songs versus orchestrations may be Damien Chazzell's downfall; he may be so focused on the latter that he didn't realize how bland and/or poorly recorded the former were.
    • Part of the reason for this style of "singing" is that he didn't hire actual singers.  And while Ryan Gosling spent 3 months studying jazz piano (which is awesome!), at least as much time should have been spent on voice lessons.  Same with Emma Stone and, well, nearly everyone in the cast.
  • The dancing.  Again, it wasn't bad; much of it was very cute.  But it wasn't great.  And frankly, it wasn't perfect.  I have much higher standards for films than I do for live theatre because in a film you can take as many takes as you want to get it right.  Theatre's a lot harder because you rehearse, but for each audience, you only have that one moment to be right (which is part of the beauty of live theatre, but I digress).
    • Again, they didn't hire dancers (not for the leads).  So they could spend months training these talented actors, or they could, y'know, hire actual dancer/singer/actors!!!  It's a novel concept, I know, but I know those triple threats are out there.  In fact, I know some of them.
      Exhibit A:  look at their hands -- completely different!  INEXCUSABLE!!!
  • Some of the transitions felt a little long; overall, the movie itself felt long.  I was surprised when I got out of the theater to see it was under 2 hours.  That's not necessarily a good marker of a film:  that it feels longer than it is.
Overall, I did enjoy it because I enjoyed the movies it made me think of (and made me want to go watch).  I liked the chemistry and banter between the leads.  Now I would just like them to do it better.

P.S.  I couldn't find a way to work it into this (very late) review, but go watch the 1955 movie version of Guys & Dolls (with Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra).  It's similar in color and style to La La Land as well.

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