I like musicals and I think it’s a shame that the film musical is mostly a relic of the past, dusted off a couple times a decade for a big revival and then set in the back of the closet for a few more years. La La Land is a generally competent film that I just can’t make myself stomach. It’s well-made, the script is good, and the chemistry between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling is frankly delightful. But it’s not a movie I liked. It’s so convinced that it’s fresh and wonderful just for being a big Hollywood musical that they didn’t bother to make a good musical, or a compelling love story, or to cast more than three people. La La Land is cuter than it is good, and I’m just not feeling like loving a cute movie right now.
La La Land is the kind of self-congratulatory nonsense that Hollywood loves to reward with gold statues and is invariably met with countless articles about how out of touch the entertainment industry is. This is a movie about a struggling actress and her boyfriend, a jazz pianist obsessed with doing things the old-fashioned way. These aren’t particularly relatable characters, and I say that as someone who lives in Los Angeles and knows a fair number of struggling actors. It’s the Hollywood that exists in movies and, honestly, mostly older movies at that. It is, however, the kind of Hollywood that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves to believe exists and will happily shower awards on movies that depict it as such. I’m sure that’s just a happy accident.
The biggest problem I have with La La Land is it isn’t a very good musical. They cast actors who can sort of sing and kind of dance instead of getting any dedicated singers or dancers in leading roles. John Legend is in the movie but he only gets one number and it isn’t a naturally occurring number, it’s a musical performance within the movie. Aside from an opening non-sequitur and an early ensemble number, everyone but Gosling and Stone get locked out of musical numbers for the rest of the way. It hardly feels like a magical world where everyone breaks into song, and more of a look at two people who break in to song while the rest of the world looks on.
By “the rest of the world” I really mean a shockingly sparse cast of extras. I live in Los Angeles, but I certainly don’t live in the Los Angeles depicted in La La Land. That Los Angeles is a place where a couple can always be alone wherever they are and whatever they’re doing. If they’re hanging out in Griffith Park there’s no one to be seen, if they’re going to a revival movie theater playing Rebel Without a Cause there’s barely five other people in the house, and if they’re breaking in to the observatory there’s not even a security guard there. I’m not saying that scenes need to be a realistic level of crowded, but between no crowds and a sparse supporting cast the world in this movie feels so sparse. You could set La La Land on an arctic research lab and you’d only have to change some dialogue about what LA really cares about.
The most damning thing I can say about La La Land is that I saw that movie two days ago and I could barely hum you the tune of any of the songs (I think I have one of them but it might just be “Blue Skies” by Irving Berlin) but I’m still singing “You’re Welcome” from Moana at basically any opportunity. It’s a movie that seems to be hitting with a lot of people I know but I just stay in the theater thinking about how this would have been a better movie if they made it back when they really cared about making a good musical. La La Land isn’t West Side Story, it isn’t even Newsies. It’s a novelty, it’s a love letter to an Los Angeles that only existed in 40 year old movies, and it feels like a cynical attempt to get Oscar attention. There’s a version of La La Land I would have liked, but this one is too low effort and too calculated for me. Maybe next time.