La La Land Shivers with Syncopation

dylyn-petersonBY DYLYN PETERSON
Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land impresses with spectacular style and seems destined to bring musicals back into the mainstream.

Now, I’m not a musical person. I got my varsity letter playing the cymbals at high school basketball games. The only contemporary musicals I’m familiar with are the musical episodes of TV shows, and the title was the best music pun I could think of, so I wasn’t sure if this was the movie for me. After it was nominated for fourteen Academy Awards and blew up the Internet with its ending, I decided to give it a try.

The movie immediately endeared itself to me with its retro opening, proudly announcing itself to be presented in CinemaScope. I only became more amused when I noticed the nostalgic, grainy goodness of a movie shot on film.

It was around that point where the film’s greatest strength came into view: it is one of the most visually-impressive movies I’ve ever seen. The colors are bright, the shots are precise, the sets are interesting and distinctive. The first scene is six minutes long and edited to look like one continuous shot (there were actually three, but there were also a hundred dancers), which is the quickest way to my heart.

The only way it could be better eye candy is if it had a scene in outer space. Oh, wait. It does.

The plot is simple, because musicals are either straightforward or completely insane.

Mia, played by Emma Stone, is a young actress struggling to get film roles in Los Angeles, who angers a poor jazz pianist, Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian, on a highway while heading to an audition.

In an incredibly classy move, after seeing the rest of Mia’s day, the film cuts back to their encounter on the road to show what happened with Sebastian. I may or may not have slow-clapped in the theater. Anyway, after some hostilities, and a number of convenient chance re-encounters, they get together. During the course of their relationship, both of them achieve moderate success in their creative endeavors.

Oh, yeah. And they sing and dance a lot. Let’s talk about that.

The songs and dances throughout the film are enjoyable, if a bit generic, perhaps more so than a retro genre throwback really needs to be.

One would think that a musical written and directed by a former jazz drummer in his second movie in a row about jazz starring a guy who has several speeches about jazz would be scored primarily with jazz, but no.

While jazz occurs, we never get to see any crazy improvised, polymetered dances, nor do we hear any bridges where the singers are scatting. While the movie is good, if it had gone all-in on its inspirations, it would’ve been just that much more original and enjoyable.

A smaller problem is one of structure, specifically that after the first hour or so, La La Land seems to forget that it’s a musical. Songs still happen, of course, but they’re mostly instrumentals or songs played at concerts in-universe. It remembers it’s a musical one last time before the big finale, but it was strange to have spent so much of the runtime on standard relationship drama-type stuff.

Another issue I have is that the characters are too familiar, and too few.

Our two leads are pretty much the only people with any presence in the movie, although oddly enough they only sing on maybe two-thirds of the songs.

Mia is certainly enjoyable, but we never get any solid evidence that she can act, and she has a weird hipster streak towards the end of the movie, getting mad at Sebastian for being in a band that appeals to other people while making him money.

Sebastian is kind of a jerk whose character begins and ends with, “Poor guy who’s really into jazz and wants to open a jazz club despite no business experience.”

The acting in this movie has received what I consider undue praise; I’m not sure if talent and skill were all that necessary for these two.

But the songs are good, the visuals are great, and the actors are both great at their jobs.

The ending is fantastic, and definitely not what one might expect out of a musical romantic comedy.

Plus, seriously, one of the songs features the main characters floating off into outer space. It should’ve been in 3D.

I give La La Land six-and-a-half stars out of seven.
Literal stars. From space.

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