La La Land is one of those movies which is surprisingly hard to review because the bits that I think make it truly brilliant, and make me think it really is likely to grab an bucket load of Oscars on Sunday, aren’t in the trailer.
But, I will stick to my rules. So, from what we can tell from the trailer, there are the obvious two parts that make up this film.
First this is a huge song and dance musical in the old Hollywood tradition, in fact in multiple Hollywood director traditions. I had fun playing spot the influence but if you aren’t keen on old school Hollywood song and dance shows, you probably want to avoid La La Land because while it’s not the subject matter of this film it is the skeleton of the film, even though there is a distinctly new shine and modern sensibility layered on top of it. This isn’t the post-modern deconstruction of the genre that the Scream movies were for teen horror, it is more an update, a reboot, Hollywood song and dance 2.0. However, if you’re not familiar with the Hollywood song and dance 1.0 I’m not sure how much sense the update will make.
Second, there is the core love story we see. Two crazy, young people with a dream that fall in love and, as we do see in the trailer, encourage each other to follow their dreams. The trailer doesn’t specify exactly what Mia’s arc is, so I won’t go into detail but it is clear enough she dreams of becoming a Hollywood star which, in some ways, of course, this is the ultimate Hollywood story. Sebastian’s dream (Ryan Gosling) isn’t a Hollywood dream per se - he’s the jazz pianist and his dreams centre around music but he is just as supported and supportive.
Any song and dance musical relies on the ability of the leads to actually sing and dance. Emma Stone was good enough to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway for several months, and in my opinion it shows here. She may not have the range of a full-time singer, but she can carry a tune and has a clear, sweet voice and can dance. Ryan Gosling is a surprisingly great dancer. I think his voice will divide people, It actually carries the tune, but it’s quite husky and I think it’s better suited to belting out the lyrics than singing quietly which he does here. But for this role, I think it works well - I’m not seriously comparing him to Louis Armstrong as a musician, but if you think of Satchmo’s voice there was that gravelly quality to it, and Gosling’s voice reminded me of that several times. For the role of “the jazz pianist” that’s not a bad comparison to spring to mind. So, I was comfortable with both of them but you may not be, particularly if you don’t like Gosling’s singing voice.
Likewise, any film that is based around a romance requires you believe in the leads as a couple. I found that relatively easy. I didn’t realise just how many movies Stone and Gosling have been in together before La La Land but it turns out to be several. It doesn’t follow that they’re friends, but they looked relaxed, comfortable and happy around each other and certainly worked as couple for me.
There are, as I’ve said above, scenes that constitute spoilers that raise this from one I regard as “merely” a very good film to an exceptional film. I sometimes wonder why a particular film gets the nod for an Oscar nomination (or, more often, I wonder not at the racial discrimination but the genre discrimination that remains in the Oscars where great horror, SciFi, Fantasy and Action films are all too rarely nominated in the big categories) but in this case I’m in no doubt that La La Land is truly deserving. Although I haven’t seen all the competition, I think Emma Stone will win too best actress too, this role as Mia just seems to leap from the screen into slightly larger than life yellow dress-clad brilliance. Part of that is the script and the cinematography of course, but part of that is her acting. I saw a comment in an Oscar’s preview column that said, more or less, with her role as Mia in La La Land, Emma Stone has proven herself as the ingénue for the current generation of Hollywood actresses. I’m not sure she’ll be happy with that label as it generally relies on appearing young and pretty, as well as innocent, so it’s time-limited and needs an out in a career plan to another set of roles, but there is a gap in the market for an ingénue at the moment, so perhaps she’ll enjoy it for a few years before thinking about that, then move sideways into something else, who knows. She certainly does fill that role wonderfully in this film, although she’s played other such stock roles (notably soubrettes) in other films so certainly has the range, and it’s generally easier to move from soubrette to character actor for a woman.
I’ve laid out my provisos above. Personally I think this is a wonderful film. If you’re not keen on musicals you won’t. If you don’t like Hollywood song and dance films you might not. Ryan Gosling doesn’t sing that much, but if you can’t cope with his voice, you won’t. And if you don’t like his voice you won’t come away with a song on your lips… but I can’t get it out of my head, so it’s embedded below so you can decide for yourself.
Bechdel test: Yes. There are quite a few short conversations between Mia and other named female characters, most of which are not about men. Several are about a refund for non-gluten free buns for example. Reading the cast list on IMDB is quite interesting - there are a lot of minor characters (male and female) who would normally be a role-name, such as gluten-free woman, who have a character name which makes for the easy pass, although there would be other conservations than the one I’ve highlighted above that would make for a pass.
Russo test: No, 0/3. I can’t decide if I’m disappointed by this or not. On one hand, with such a rebooted Hollywood story I feel there ought to be an LGBT presence, On the other hand we don’t really see characters have relationships other than Mia’s, and Sebastian’s with her, nor indeed significant characters other than those two, so I think it’s inevitable - if there were LGBT characters present, you still wouldn’t get them passing the Russo test, unless Mia or Sebastian was bi.
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