I recently watched La-La Land (2016), the favorite of this past year’s Award Season cycle. The film ultimately lost to “Moonlight” (2016) for the Best Picture Oscar. After seeing both movies, the result was warranted – Moonlight is an objectively better film that La-La Land. But why?
La-La Land is a good movie. It isn’t a great movie, but it could have been one. The main issue I had with it was that it begins as an homage to better things. Remember in The Return of the King (2003) Extended Edition when Saruman taunts Theoden King by calling him “the lesser son of greater sires?” The first half of La-La Land made me remember that line, so much so that for the first forty-five minutes my main thought was “I’d rather be watching “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952).”
La-La Land gets much better in the second half, when it gets out of its own way and becomes its own movie. That isn’t nothing. Homage films like “The Artist” (2011) never go beyond their initial tribute to the classics. The question becomes, then, why did La-La Land have to start as such a blatant homage to begin with?
One could argue that La-La Land has to set itself up this way – it needs to build up the Old Hollywood musical in order to tear it down. The problem is that it never builds up the concept of the Golden Age musical enough to really subvert it. Part of this has to do with the skill sets of the actors. Ryan Gosling, for example, puts in a yeoman’s effort, but he ultimately can’t dance or sing well enough to really sell his role as a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly type. The other part, and probably the more important, is that after the opening couple of numbers the movie abandons the nostalgia aspect pretty abruptly. The homage to Old Hollywood feels more like an abandoned concept than a theme the film is trying to comment on.
In the end, La-La Land is a strange animal of a film. It didn’t successfully explore the themes it wanted to explore, but that doesn’t make it a bad film either. It is exceptionally well made and entertaining after all. It just missed the mark a bit.
You might like La-La Land if: You’re looking for a well made, original musical film that isn’t based on a preexisting property.
You might not like La-La Land if: You think about it too much.
(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe