(This review contains very slight story spoilers for La La Land, so if you are in any way spoiler phobic, I suggest trying to see it first and then coming back to read this. If you don’t care about spoilers one bit, then read on and enjoy. Well…hopefully you enjoy it.)
Before talking about this movie, I want to take you back to the past, to a time before Donald Trump was President Elect and before Malcolm Turnbull stabbed Tony Abbott in the back to become Prime Minster: 2014. Specifically, I want to take you back to a little movie called…Whiplash. Damien Chazelle’s sophomore directorial outing came out of nowhere and was a critical and commercial hit, scoring five Academy Award nominations, winning three (Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons, Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing), and announcing his arrival on the main stage. If Selma hadn’t come out the same year, Whiplash would have been my favourite movie of the 2014, if that tells you anything about how much I liked it and how good I thought it was. Suffice to say, my expectations for La La Land were incredibly high. Did it live up to them? …Not so much. But before I go into why exactly that is, let’s talk about the positives.
Right off the bat, this is a very traditional Hollywood musical in every sense of the word. If you don’t like those kind of musicals, which is absolutely fine, and were expecting it to be counter-culture or subversive in some way, ala say Rocky Horror Picture Show, you’re going to be disappointed. I’m one of the people who’s totally fine with traditional musicals, so that didn’t bother me at all and to be fair, in terms of music and overall look, it is a very good one of those. The songs are fantastic and will stick with you at least until you get home, and for the most part the visuals really pop, helped enormously by Linus Sandgren’s cinematography. The pastel colour palette and the general throwback aesthetic of the costuming and some of the locations really help to transport the viewer back to the Golden Age of Cinema (TM), which is very much what Chazelle is going for here. He is in love with that time period and wants people to really feel at least some of that same love, and given that the people in my preview screening clapped when it ended, I’d say he succeeded on that front. That being said and despite liking most of the film, a lot of things bothered me about it. As much as I tried to get it out of my head, I couldn’t shake the fact that it felt very…Oscar Baity.
What is Oscar Bait, you ask? For a longer explanation of what it is and its history, as well as other handy things like how Academy membership works, there’s this video that Lindsay Ellis made earlier this year, but the short explanation is that an Oscar Bait movie is one made expressly to appeal to Academy voters in order to score nominations and potentially award wins. Two things that the Academy really loves, particularly in recent times, are movies that are 1) about Hollywood and 2) safe. La La Land is both of these things, but it is the latter that really hurts the film for me. What made Whiplash work so well was how daring and new it felt, which not only made it stand out but made it better as a whole. At no point during it could I predict where it was going, but with La La Land? As soon as I hit the midpoint I knew where it was going and how it would get there. It is very much a Hollywood love story, complete with a second half massive fight between lovers (that’s even filmed in shot reverse shot!) and in 2016, a year in which movies like Carol (technically a 2015 movie but it came out this year in Australia) and The Handmaiden have actively rejected the traditional Hollywood romance plot-line, that doesn’t really work for me anymore– no matter how well it’s done. And maybe Chazelle thinks that the ending is subversive and makes the predictability of the plot better in hindsight, but it doesn’t. Harry Chapin did an entire song that’s basically what La La Land‘s ending is aiming for and did it way better (even if he did kinda ruin it a little by doing Sequel).
The way the film plays it safe also extends to the casting as well. Don’t get me wrong, I thought Gosling and Stone were great in the leads and, for what little screen-time he had, John Legend was good too, but I’m not going to lie: as soon as I got to the tram stop to catch the tram back to the train station, I was already thinking about how much better the movie could have been if Donald Glover had been cast in the Ryan Gosling role. Or how good Ariana Grande would’ve been in the Emma Stone role. There are so many good non-white male and female actors that could have been cast in this but weren’t, not to mention a lot of good LGBTIQ actors as well. But instead we got the safest options to go with the safe script, which because its Chazelle, also has Gosling’s character want to “save jazz”. Which would be fine, if the film didn’t try to suggest that his approach was the only right way to do it, and not Legend’s, which to me comes across, unintentionally or not, as an offensive white saviour thing. Like the only one who can save the black art-form is the good-looking white guy, whose ancestors stole it from black people in the first place.
To be perfectly honest? I get why Chazelle made the movie the way he did. He’s 31 and he already got super close to winning Best Picture with Whiplash, so I can understand wanting to go that little bit further and win the important awards now and then just make whatever the hell you want for the rest of your, presumably, long career. But just because I can see the reasons behind it, doesn’t mean I can’t be critical of the end product. The reason I’m so hard on La La Land is because I liked it and wish it was better. Also, because I don’t want to see Chazelle go the way of Neill Blomkamp. While they’re not exactly the same (Chazelle hit it big with his second movie, while Blomkamp did it with his first), Whiplash reminds me of District 9 a lot. Both were movies that were incredibly good and that put their respective directors on the map for me, and unfortunately Blomkamp followed up District 9 with Elysium which was not…good. And who knows, maybe he’ll surprise me and Alien 5 will be amazing, but the point still stands. Chazelle is a fantastic director and writer and I really hope this was just a slight blip on what is otherwise going to be a stellar career, but I’ve been hurt before.
To sum up, La La Land is a good movie that instead of soaring close to the sun like Icarus in the pursuit of being daring, settles for flying safely across the ocean like Daedalus, presumably in the hopes that it will be able to build a temple to Apollo (The Greek God, not Apollo Creed) out of Academy Award and Golden Globe statues. My only hope is that it is not a sign of things to come for Damien Chazelle and that he’s once again able to capture the magic of Whiplash that originally drew me to him in the first place.