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J.A.A. Purves

La La Land (2016)

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18 minutes ago, Ryan H. said:

The last entry in this movie musical that really knocked my socks off was Moulin Rouge

I'm so happy to hear you say this.

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Very interesting review, Evan.  I really wanted to like (hell, even love) this film, but I came away underwhelmed.

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Thank you, Andrew. I, too, badly wanted to love this film.

 

Joel, I've been thinking about your question all day, and while I'm always hesitant to define what specifically makes any work of art great, (because of over-generalizations or prominent exceptions) the most succinct answer I can give you is that while La La Land hit all the expected beats that a musical is "supposed to," it mostly came across to me that the filmmakers had no idea why those beats existed.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Caveat: As Ryan said, a stage musical and a film musical are two different beasts, so if a musical I reference exists in both stage and film versions, I'm referring to the film version here.

In an attempt to flesh out why I feel La La Land was clueless about the reason for musical tropes, I'll start with the ending, my biggest objection to La La Land. The bittersweet, love-at-first-sight, summer romance which fails to workout (or appears as if it is going to fail) is a classic musical trope from Moulin Rouge, to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Love Me Tonight, Grease, heck, even in some twisted way Carousel. La La Land is clearly aware of that, which is apparent when Mia ends up married to some other guy in the coda five years later. I'll stick with Umbrellas as my counter-example, because that's what I was referencing in my review. In Umbrellas Catherine Deneuve is torn throughout the film between her lover and the older, but kind-hearted and considerate gentlemen proposing to her, and while the film acts as a paean to the beauty and excitement of the typical musical romance between passionate young lovers, it simultaneously serves as a critique of the instability and shallowness of tempestuous emotions, acknowledging how rarely those types of romances actually work out. Thus, when Umbrellas reaches its coda years later and Deneuve runs into her old lover, the moment is heart-breakingly bittersweet and beautiful, subtly reminding us what might have been.

Contrast that with La La Land. Mia's husband could be anyone; we never meet him at all. We have no idea how, why, or when she and Sebastian broke up; we don't know if she met her husband before or after the breakup. It's true we see enough tension between Mia and Sebastian to have a suspicion that their romance won't last, but the way that the film tells us is: Mia walks into her home and kisses a new man we've never seen before, then she sees Sebastian play in the jazz club, and then there's a dream sequence spelling out the what might have been, because we're incapable of imagining it. Honestly, if the film had ended on the park bench after the final audition, my C+ grade would have been at least a B. Going for the bittersweet, what-might-have-been fantasy, as I said in my review, struck me as just shallow copying, because it's a trope that other musicals have used, but La La Land has none of the setup for that trope, and consequently, for me, none of the emotion behind it. We have no idea what led to the breakup, no idea what tensions there would be in that reunion. In Umbrellas, we know why Deneuve chose the way she did, and it's easy to imagine what might have been had she chosen differently. In La La Land, it was another box to check.

I don't want to get into a conversation about musical form, because while there are classic, traditional musical forms, 1) they're different for stage and film, 2) there are brilliant musicals which subvert or completely disregard them, and 3) that's not really my problem with La La Land. I will say La La Land both wants to honor the traditional form while breaking it with its theme and variation structure, but I don't think it had a firm enough grip on the traditional form to be successful in breaking it.

However, one thing to take away from the traditional musical is the "I Want" song, or the song in which a protagonist expresses a desire for some sort of change to the status quo, be it acquiring a tangible object or an expression of existential longing. The most clear-cut example of one would probably be "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid, although "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is also a good example. Not all musicals need an "I Want" song(s), but on a subconscious level, they are the type of songs that usually get us to care about the characters and understand their motivation. Naturally, they are not the only way a musical can achieve that. By my count, La La Land has maybe one: "The Fools Who Dream," which is the last song in the musical. There's nothing wrong at all with having an "I Want" song end a musical; however, if it's the only such song, I would say that is a problem.

In the traditional form of a musical, the "I Want" song usually occurs near the onset of the action or conflict. When Mia steps out of the shower at the beginning and walks over to the mirror, I said to myself, "here it comes, her 'I Want' song," which wasn't a criticism, just an observation, as I was really looking forward to Stone having a big solo. Then her roommates burst in, and there's a fun song and dance instead. And while I enjoyed "Someone in the Crowd," it didn't do much to develop character or plot, which contrary to the joke that musical songs don't ever do that, in the best musicals, they can.

By the way, there are two types of songs in musicals: those that move the story forward, and those that stop it while expounding on an idea. While neither type is inherently better than the other, all of La La Land's songs fall under the latter, which is fine - I'd say the same is true for Singin' in the Rain - but for that to work those songs have to be the highlight of the film, because the placeholder story is meant to serve them, which brings me to:

Damien Chazelle doesn't know how to film musical numbers. I forget who said this, but it's a perfect summary of the nagging issue throughout the film, "When filming a musical number, the goal should be to highlight the virtuosity in front of the camera, not the virtuosity behind it." Chazelle is so wedded to filming the songs in one show-offish long take, that he constantly undermines the beauty of the set pieces. When Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly is performing a dance routine, the director and cinematographer's job is to make them look good, and that's it. If that means cutting to a close-up for particularly impressive footwork and then cutting to a long-distance shot to see them run across the stage, then you do that. If it means cutting away from a really difficult camera move you executed flawlessly to make them shine, you do that. In my mind, the only number which Chazelle's camera choices aided the choreography was "A Lovely Night."

When I said "all the parts contribute to the whole," that's what I was getting at.

 

I hope that wasn't too long, and I hope it's clear, so I don't have to edit it tomorrow when I'm more awake. I also really hope I'm not raining on the parade of anyone who loved this film.

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Thanks for your thorough response, Evan! I think it was Mike D'Angelo who had that quote about highlighting the virtuosity in front of the camera (he's not a fan of long takes, apparently). Regarding the final coda--I immediately thought of Umbrellas, as well as An American in Paris, and saw this moment as a jazz riff on two masterful musicals, though I think what I found delightful you may have found to be mimicry or a shallow caricature.

Regarding their breakup: I thought the park bench scene at the end made the breakup pretty clear. In fact, their real breakup happened outside her play when he didn't show up and she said it was all over. They never really regain what they had before, despite him bringing her to the audition. There's no suggestion from him that he's doing this to get back together; he just wants her to succeed, and takes action to help make that happen. So while we don't know the back story behind Tom Everett Scott's arrival in Mia's life in the coda, it seemed clear to me that Mia and Sebastian had ended their romance prior to the park bench scene, and that final conversation about her leaving for Paris (another nod to Casablanca?) and their different vocational pursuits was clearly the end for them. It's a nod to Umbrellas, but the reasons behind their breakup is much different, with Mia and Sebastian choosing to pursue their artistic dreams separately and achieving them, then wondering in that final fantasy* whether they could have done it differently--could it have been possible for two ambitious artists to achieve vocational success and remain in a committed relationship? I think it's possible, but it would have been hard work. I think they both realize that truth in the final moments, which is what makes that coda so significant.

And you're not raining on the parade--the more I reflect on it, the more I can see the flaws in the film, and appreciate critical thought on those flaws. But I still sorta adored it. I see its flaws and I love it anyway. :) 

Edited by Joel Mayward

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Evan C wrote:
: By the way, there are two types of songs in musicals: those that move the story forward, and those that stop it while expounding on an idea. While neither type is inherently better than the other, all of La La Land's songs fall under the latter, which is fine - I'd say the same is true for Singin' in the Rain - but for that to work those songs have to be the highlight of the film, because the placeholder story is meant to serve them . . .

Side note: With the exception of 'Make 'Em Laugh', I believe every song in Singin' in the Rain was 20-30 years old already at the time the film was made. The film was basically meant to milk some extra money out of those vintage songs. So, yeah, the songs were never *meant* to further the plot because they didn't come with a plot. The plot, as you say, served the songs (and did so very well, in that case!).

: I forget who said this, but it's a perfect summary of the nagging issue throughout the film, "When filming a musical number, the goal should be to highlight the virtuosity in front of the camera, not the virtuosity behind it."

Hmmm. I will say it *did* feel a little weird to find myself sitting there, at the end of the first musical number, thinking, "Was that *really* all done in one take or was it one of those digitally stitched things like in Children of Men?" I was paying more attention to the camerawork, perhaps, than the dancing. And it didn't help that the singing was so slight -- I could barely hear the words. (Watching movies at home with the subtitles on has spoiled me.)

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3 hours ago, Peter T Chattaway said:

Evan C wrote:
: By the way, there are two types of songs in musicals: those that move the story forward, and those that stop it while expounding on an idea. While neither type is inherently better than the other, all of La La Land's songs fall under the latter, which is fine - I'd say the same is true for Singin' in the Rain - but for that to work those songs have to be the highlight of the film, because the placeholder story is meant to serve them . . .

Side note: With the exception of 'Make 'Em Laugh', I believe every song in Singin' in the Rain was 20-30 years old already at the time the film was made. The film was basically meant to milk some extra money out of those vintage songs. So, yeah, the songs were never *meant* to further the plot because they didn't come with a plot. The plot, as you say, served the songs (and did so very well, in that case!).

Yes, it's astonishing how brilliantly that story works the songs into the plot, because most musicals constructed around preexisting songs turn out to be terrible (e.g. Mamma Mia). And "Moses Supposes" was also written for the film.

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I enjoyed this. There isn't much to it, but it's flashy and fun, with two irresistibly charismatic lead performances. (Emma Stone's face is a wonderful thing.)

It is, in some ways, a stereotypically "millennial" movie, striving for a return to innocence and originality through flimsy nostalgia. It's a fool's errand, and, as such, this doesn't really have the artistic force of a ONE FROM THE HEART or a NEW YORK, NEW YORK, but it's also a lot more likable than those noble failures.

Edited by Ryan H.

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Everything Marsh writes about the movie is correct.

Edited by Ryan H.

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I found Whiplash to be extremely cynical. So I won't be surprised if I agree. I'm seeing La La Land in an hour.

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Posted (edited)

Owen Gleiberman says La La Land improves on re-viewing. I tend to agree, though I've only seen it once, so far. Immediately afterward, I thought I would be shrugging it off, but it has been more memorable than many other films I've seen this past year. I do want to see it again. It certainly has flaws (neither Stone nor Gosling can sing), but I wouldn't call it cynical. And I hate Los Angeles.

Edited by BethR

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New York, New York is one of the few Scorsese films I haven't seen yet. (Beware, spoilers.)

 

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There's actually another similarity between New York, New York and La La Land which that video doesn't mention: the former features a fantasy sequence near the end which was directed by Vincente Minnelli, and the latter features a fantasy sequence paying blatant tribute to Vincente Minnelli.

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