The Los Angeles skyline as seen from the Getty Center in December 2014.
I’ve seen “La La Land” twice, so I think it’s safe for me to venture an opinion. It’s interesting that jazz plays such a interesting role in the film as one of the life passions that one of the lead characters pursues. If I were to compare “La La Land” to a jazz piece, I would say that there are some interesting themes, but the ensemble relies on the same beat too often.
The film contains a lot of enjoyable elements, but it doesn’t necessarily gel — especially at the end, when such cohesion is needed.
The film, being set in Los Angeles and providing several fun, brightly colored musical numbers, inevitably draws on artificial constructs of filmmaking. Unfortunately, writer and director Damien Chazelle seemed to lean on these constructs too often and it became distracting.
For example, it’s not an uncommon staging technique (especially in theater) to isloate people by placing them in a spotlight and fading the lights around them. Although there are other ways to reproduce the same effect more naturally in cinema, it’s not a bad way help heighten an emotional moment.
Unfortunately, repeating the technique about 10 times in a two-hour film greatly diminishes its impact and ultimately takes the viewer out of the story.
It may be that Hollywood-centric stories generally draw from a general pool of cliches and expectations that other L.A. films have established, built upon and distorted over the decades. “La La Land” draws on these expectations, but doesn’t seem to exceed them.
This was especially clear when Stone’s actress character is called into an audition reminded me of the end of “The Muppet Movie” where Kermit and the gang finally gain audience with a studio exec and sign “The standard rich and famous contract.” While Stone is winning in that scene, it doesn’t really go beyond ground tread by frogs and pigs about 40 years ago.
Chazelle can have a deft hand behind the camera. That’s readily apparent in the showstopping opener, “Another Day of Sun,” which was shot in a single, flowing take over two rows of stopped cars on a Southern California highway interchange. The selection of shooting locations is also a fun trip around an idealized Los Angeles, including the Griffith Observatory and the currently closed, but fondly remembered Angels Flight funicular railroad.
The energy of the opener and the subsequent song helping to establish the female lead lend the film a tremendous amount of energy. This energy seems to fade gradually as the film progresses into the story between Emma Stone’s Mia and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian.
Although music remains a present campanion through the film, if often takes a backseat to the drama of Mia and Sebastian’s courtship and the ultimate fate of the relationship.
In the climax of the relationship storyline, music plays in the background until it suddenly stops on a critical beat of the dialogue. The song’s sudden silence adds a unique texture to the scene in a way that feels more natural than the camera blocking for the scene.
The camerawork during these scene — an argument — plays up a common filmmaking technique. The scene starts with the two characters in the frame together — even when one character is speaking and facing the camera, the other character is still in the frame.
This shifts as the argument builds tension. The couple stops sharing the frame as Chazelle isolates each character — helping to signify the growing distance in the relationship. I think it was a fascinating decision to show close-ups of Mia and Sebastian’s faces, allowing the emotions on each of the actors’ faces to unfold in grand scale.
Ultimately, I don’t know how effective the scene is because of relying on a standard technique.
I love that Chazelle deploys different camerawork depending on the scene, although I wonder if it wholly comes together. The final number, a medley sequence recounting the events of the film if they had gone differently, is exhiliarating. It makes a play for the viewer’s heart, but it didn’t quite work for me. It relies on there being a great love story at the core of the film and I don’t think that ever fully took root.
There’s enough to “La La Land” to make me want to visit, but I’m not looking to stay.
3 stars out of four.
Written in 40 minutes.