La La Land

2016 musical

Rating: 16/20 (Jen: 16/20)

Plot: An aspiring actress and a lover of jazz who wants to start his own club meet and fall in love with each other while singing and dancing adequately if not expertly.

That's one of the two gripes I've heard about La La Land. The two actors can't sing and dance very well. My Uncle Barry, a man who may or may not actually exist, hated the movie for that reason. I've seen people's amateur reviews--unlike the sort of professional quality you're used to getting here--griping that "These people sure ain't Fred Astaire!" I don't claim to be an expert on either singing or dancing although I do watch The Voice sometimes which probably does make me close to an expert on the former. And my mom watches Dancing with the Stars, so I might somehow be an expert on the latter, too.

Regardless, I have my very own movie blog and feel qualified enough to say that I think that argument is ridiculous. First, I think both Stone and Gosling (especially Stone) are just fine when singing. Gosling doesn't have an ultra-powerful voice or anything, but I actually think that fits in with the character more. The character isn't a singer. He's a jazz pianist. He's also a shy and awkward fellow, so a singing voice that doesn't sound all that confident or forceful actually works to create the character a little better. And Stone, I thought, was borderline exceptional. I don't really mean that in some sort of she's-the-greatest-thing-to-happen-to-female-vocals-since-Aretha-Franklin kind of way. But she does have this ability to share her character's emotions by using her singing voice, and there were moments in some of her song numbers that I found genuinely touching. I'd also like to point out that her character isn't supposed to be a singer either.

I don't know how to judge dancing. I couldn't take my eyes off Ryan Gosling's posterior during most of the dance sequences.

The second gripe is that the story is derivative or uninspired. That's kind of a silly gripe, too. First, I'm not sure I want my movie musicals to have intricate plots. You're dealing with a medium where characters stop anything resembling normal life and start singing and dancing around. I guess there could be a sophistication to that sort of behavior, but we certainly don't need a sophisticated plot to match it. For a movie musical, I'm happy with the writer just ripping off Romeo and Juliet or trying to find a wizard with the assistance of a scarecrow and a bunch of little people. The story here isn't anything great. It's an unrealistic romance, the type of thing that can only really happen on Hollywood sound stages, but the characters and their hopes and dreams are strong enough to make the whole thing work just fine. There's a sweetness to the whole thing, and it's got an ending that, although some folks might not exactly care for it, it's a beautifully delicate ending that recalled something like City Lights and really touched me.

My gripe would be that there just weren't enough song and dance numbers. The whole thing opens spectacularly with a huge and complex and exceptionally-choreographed and absolutely exhilarating musical number that temporarily interrupts a traffic jam. I nearly cried as this thing unfolded, but I was with my wife and didn't want her to see me cry like she would inevitably have to see me cry when The Rock flexes his cast off after saying, "Daddy's gotta go to work." What kind of man cries during a musical anyway? There's just so much going on in this scene, so much movement and color and people involved, that I don't see how anybody can watch the thing and not love what they saw. And like (I think) every other musical moment in the movie, it's all a beautiful extended take, the camera swirling between cars, capturing hopping bicycles and spinning skateboarders and a band with instruments in the back of a truck for some reason and all these random human beings popping out of their cars to dance around a bit and lessen the ennui from what very likely is going to wind up being another soul-crushingly dull day. I just loved the scene so much. And the next number, another scene without a single--at least noticeable--cut is also wonderful. It's an upbeat number in Emma Stone's apartment, and again, there's so much movement and so much color that you really don't end up giving a shit about whether anybody can dance or not. The third big musical number is reminiscent, probably intentionally, of something from Singing in the Rain. There's even a little tap-dancing. And yes, there aren't any cuts in that one, too.  Anybody who knows me knows that I love those long takes in movies. Movies are hard enough to make as it is. At least I've heard they are. To construct an extended scene like this and have everything unfurl so flawlessly and so exquisitely is just mesmerizing to me.

There's another much quieter musical number that plays with a song from earlier, and then some instrumental stuff, but other than that, there aren't any more of these grand, old-school song and dance things. And that frustrated me a bit because even though I was engrossed enough with the romance and the structure of the story, I really longed for more of the music.

With this and Whiplash, Damien Chazelle is on a bit of a roll. A next movie from him, which I assume will have something to do with music and maybe have an underutilized J.K. Simmons, will be something to look forward to. And I won't even care if the characters can sing and dance very well and don't care what my Uncle Barry thinks about that.

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