It’s been nearly impossible to avoid discussion of Damien Chazelle’s musical ode to L.A since it was released to wide spread acclaim at the end of 2016. After cleaning up at the Golden Globes and picking up five BAFTAs, including Best Film, La La Land still seems to be the front runner for the top Oscar prizes, despite the increasing number of people questioning the praise being heaped on the film. During awards season there has been much talk from the cast and crew of what a risk they were taking with the film, but an ode to classic Hollywood with two highly bankable, straight white leads hardly constitutes the cutting edge of cinema, even with the musical numbers. La La Land is certainly charming, with great performances from its leads, but ground-breaking cinema it is not.
The film tells the story of two struggling artists, aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling), who find themselves running into each other whilst trying to make it in L.A. Despite initial insistence that there’s nothing between them, and some pining from Seb, a romance blossoms over coffee, James Dean and jazz. Then, as their relationship and careers progress, Mia and Seb must try to reconcile their love with their ambition.
The story is one we’ve seen played out on screen many times before, but Stone and Gosling’s unmistakable chemistry give the plot some weight. Their performances make the film, particularly Stone’s whose comedic talents and emotive ability are put to excellent use, whilst Gosling is sufficiently charming in a role that’s essentially a hipster version of Noah from The Notebook. The tried and tested pairing of Stone and Gosling make it hard not to become invested in the film’s romance.
The leads’ charm is enhanced by the original musical numbers, which don’t disrupt the film’s flow and manage to pay tribute to classic Hollywood without being too cheesy or clunky, aside from the saccharine opening number. Coupled with the beautiful colouring and visuals – particularly those of the scenes in the Griffith Observatory and the climatic dream sequence which play out gorgeously on the screen- the musical numbers add an enchanting glamour to the film, even if Stone and Gosling aren’t the most gifted singers or dancers. The whole thing looks and feels romantic, infused with the feeling of golden age Hollywood without being melodramatic or dated.
Nevertheless, the film feels slightly self-indulgent in its pandering to a romanticised idea of the struggling artist and Hollywood’s transformative power through the hardly revolutionary medium of straight people falling in love. Additionally the characterisation of Mia is a little thin. Although fleshed out by Stone’s performance, Mia is given little depth outside of her relationship to Seb. Yes, we see that she’s inspired by the magic of the movies and her actor aunt, but her development seems lacking given how much attention the film gives to Seb’s jazz purism. Mia learns to love jazz because of Seb, learns about film – on their Rebel without a Cause date – because of Seb, has the courage to stage her one woman show because of Seb – who then skips it for a photo-shoot – and of course it’s Seb who convinces Mia to take one last shot with a casting director leading to her big break.
Seb and his quest to ‘save’ jazz dominate much of the film, as Chazelle tries to incorporate some kind of meaningful dialogue on jazz’s history and continued relevancy into the film. However, as many have rightly pointed out, centring this conversation around the journey of a fake-deep white guy totally undermines it. It’s impossible for La La Land to contribute something significant on the importance of jazz by removing it from its historical and political context, as a genre pioneered by black artists as a form of self-expression and resistance.
If you were to remove the hype surrounding La La Land you’d be left with a charming and lovingly made Hollywood musical. The film is able to avoid being too cheesy or shallow, thanks to Stone and Gosling’s chemistry and the touches of humour in Chazelle’s screenplay, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. However in its acclaim soaked awards season context, and at a time when so many interesting and innovative films are being made, the film’s allure is dimmed and people are right in questioning the praise being heaped on it. Despite all the talk of what a risk the financers were taking in backing the project, there’s little that feels revolutionary about La La Land. Though undoubtedly entertaining, it would be disappointing to see the film win the Academy’s top prize, particularly in a year when the Oscar’s seem so keen to pat themselves on the back for being slightly more inclusive in their nominations following the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. My advice? If you want to watch a truly great musical about show business and straight white people falling in love, watch Moulin Rouge.