Seven Golden Globes. Fourteen Oscar nominations. Endless critical acclaim. With all the colors and nostalgia a movie can muster, La La Land marked a fireworks-ending to 2016.
But for a movie so successful, it was not a universal pleaser- in fact, it turned into a downright divisive topic amongst audience members who rated it differently, from a life-changing movie to a mediocre disappointment. The 21st-century Hollywood musical left us with a looming question few dare to answer: was it overrated?
I am no critic, nor am I an extraordinarily frequent movie-goer. And, admittedly, I have next to no knowledge about films. But I am a lover of words, music, theatre, and most importantly, stories. So I will give what I have on this movie, including my takes on the criticisms it has received. Read further for an entirely personal review of La La Land– unprofessional, subjective, and heartfelt.
To begin with: in terms of cinematography, the film reached a level of excellency that even its harshest criticizers find difficult to disagree with. It was a technical and visual delight, with breathless shots and fearless use of bold color in both the sets and the costumes. What’s more, the impeccable acting by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling made the scenes and characters seamlessly believable. Everything was perfect to the eye.
But when it came the the ear, the debates picked up volume. Being a musical, the songs had significant weight in the overall progression of the movie. While for some, it was the best original soundtrack of recent years, for others, it lacked any memorable tunes that carried themselves beyond the theatre into nodding heads and tapping feet. But in the end, music can only be evaluated through individual taste, and it happened to strike my chord. I thought the soundtrack was a delight, and this opinion intensified as I listened to the songs on repeat after watching the film itself. In contrast to songs that have hit me with a catchy boom upon the first listen and then turned increasingly boring as I put them on repeat, the La La Land soundtrack drew me in further every time I played it. In other words, the addiction deepened instead of tapering off. And what more can be said about the lyrics- especially in the climax piece “Audition”, which seems to embody everything the film is about?
Some people found dissatisfaction in the fact that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling were not Broadway-level singers (or dancers), but I found it to be a deliberate choice. It would have been easy to cast doubles for a “perfect” musical, but the film chose to forgo that to prioritize reality and genuineness. Personally, I felt that the slight drawl of Gosling’s voice and the subtle quiver of Stone’s notes made the characters mesh with the music better. The music was a vehicle and an enhancer for the film as a whole, not a purpose in itself. If what I was looking for in La La Land was extraordinary vocal prowess, I would be browsing Youtube covers of the songs instead. And besides, La La Land sets itself apart in that the songs blend effortlessly into the scenes and dialogue, escaping the often choppy talk-then-sing transitions of other movie musicals.
Another pick that viewers had on the movie was its lack of diversity, questioning the casting choices as a mere result of star power or an attempt at gathering a bigger audience, sometimes getting into the question of white privilege. But I feel that this is a separate debate from analyzing the movie itself, and for convenience, will keep my scope to the content of the film.
The biggest point of contention is, almost certainly, the plot- and especially the ending. (At this point, I advise readers who have yet to watch the movie to skip to the final paragraph in order to avoid spoilers.) The broken romance between the two leads left many heartbroken and some simply puzzled. The heartbroken argue that the ending was unsatisfactory and turned the build-up and the excellent chemistry into a sham- a hollow ending that only leaves what never was. The puzzled wonder why the break-up was necessary in the plot, questioning whether the ending was a stretch to add an artistically sad element to the movie. And to make matters worse, the ending swerve wasn’t the only part of the plot put into heat. Many simply found the character development shallow and the scenes riddled with cliches. Plainly put, not deep enough.
I have personally found it difficult to admit to such people that I loved the film and its plot, including the ending. Liking something popular despite such criticism makes me feel somewhat juvenile, or that I’m possibly missing something that deeper thinkers see, having shallower ideals. But the plot did not present me with any issues, and I was certainly happy with the ending. I agree that the story uses many well-trodden tropes and themes, including the starving artist, obsessive passion, and the contrast between dreams and reality. The romance between Mia and Sebastian was built with a series of meet-cutes. But cliches are cliches for a reason- because they are widely relevant, impactful, or relatable- and even the same theme can be portrayed for a thousandth time and still be a great work of art if it is crafted with skill. That is the job of the storyteller.
Personally, I found Mia’s struggle as an aspiring artist in society and especially her breakdown as she began thinking that she simply wasn’t talented enough to be deeply touching. The dialogue had no fancy symbolism but was honest and real- almost as if the lines were searching for that one artist sitting in the audience, just to deal a singular gut-punch and leave the rest of the crowd wondering where the depth was to be found. And Emma Stone’s complete embodiment of the character brought the emotions to a culminating explosion in the climax. We’ve all heard this story before. It’s only because the storyteller was talented that it was able to bring tears to so many eyes.
Some blame the movie for being sugarcoated, but it takes plenty of picks at Los Angeles and the irony of the performing arts industry. Yes, the film decided to make both Mia’s and Sebastian’s dreams come true, and it frankly did leave me wondering if the film would have changed for the better had that not been the case, but after a length of pondering, I came to the conclusion that the decision to deal individual happy endings was inseparably tied to the ending and the message. The movie wouldn’t have worked out this way and sent the same message had only one of them realized his/her dream, or neither.
To me, the ending didn’t feel like a stretch to squeeze in some sadness. While most commonly cited as a romance, the film isn’t ultimately about the romance. It is driven by the relationship and certainly says something about relationships in general- but the more important story is that of two individual artists. The cutting forward into the split ending illustrated that so many things in life really could work- and if something doesn’t work, we would like to demand a reasonable and understandable problem as to why it doesn’t work- but the reality is that some of those things just don’t. Life is defined less by perfect clicks and cause-and-effects and more by subtle nudgings of different circumstances or pure chance, guiding the ball down the hill in one of its millions of paths.
One of those subtle workings of life may have been that I watched this movie exactly at the point in my life when its lines would hit me over the head. Apart from countless viewings of Youtube clips and songs, I have watched this twice in theatres and have cried at exactly the same points throughout (there were four); of course this review would have to be biased. I would say La La Land is not a sad film. It reaches out to certain people, and it doesn’t for some others. It was a fearless revival of classic movie musicals rendered with modern brilliance, dancing with colors and music and life, ultimately giving hope to millions of people worldwide to chase their dreams- no matter what they are and how slim their chances may be. This may be a naive or reckless message- but the film doesn’t shy away from showing the pitfalls, failures, and sacrifices. Besides, the whole point of the movie is that the message is indeed naive and reckless, but that you should go for it anyways. A dream-lender, spark-sender, reality-bender. The world needs more of this.
-Jisoo Hope Yoon (’19)
Cover Image: La La Land poster