Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people, and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published every Wednesday and Friday, and we plan on reviewing one movie a day. That makes things easier for us procrastinators! We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts, and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times!
“La La Land” (Released in 2016; watched by us on October 20, 2020)
A musical by Damien Chazelle. We watched it on HBO Go!
I knew going into this review that “Moonlight” is an undeniable cultural milestone that I, quite frankly, am intimidated to talk about. That day, however, is not today. I just really wanted to make fun of the Oscars some more. In case the reader is too young to remember the infamous 2016 Oscars mix-up, this is what I’m referencing.
No, dear reader, we really are discussing “La La Land” today. It has been an intense few weeks for our movie column. We discussed a tragic action flick, a mind-bending acid trip and a potentially problematic, though undeniably effective horror movie that, to this day, still gives me the shivers. I just want to smile, dear reader; I am human too! So, Nitish and I decided to talk about something lighter, something fluffier… and entertainment does not get much more fun than the musical.
“La La Land” follows two aspiring artists, a wanna-be actor, Mia, and a broke jazz pianist, Sebastian, who have both come to Hollywood in the hopes of becoming big stars. The two eventually meet and fall in love, but as they begin to find success our couple struggles to maintain their relationship.
This is almost as Hollywood as premises can get. We all know that actors love movies about actors and filmmakers love movies about filmmakers. Often, this can lead to pretentious messes in which the film industry gets so stuck inside its own butt that it completely forgets about the audience. While I am not sure whether Nitish or I have complained about this yet in our column, let it be said that these are frustrations we both share (look forward to our inevitable “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” review). But, I do not think “La La Land” has that problem.
Dear reader, you can probably call this movie sugary, saccharine or even wholesome to a vomit-inducing degree enough to make even your Webkinz doll roll their beady eyes, but it does not gatekeep. “La La Land” is fun and accessible while still being technically impressive and possessing an adequate narrative.
This film is the rare, happy marriage between New York’s Broadway scene and the movie studios of California. After the infamous release of “Cats,” I do believe a movie musical done right ought to be appreciated. While in films like this decade’s “Les Miserables” the audience is forced to watch uncomfortably as the director actively fights against their source material in favor of their own vision, “La La Land” does not share that issue. It is not an adaptation. It tells its own story and sings its own songs, which were designed solely for the medium. This allows “La La Land” to stand out as both a movie and as a musical.
The filmmaking is, quite frankly, incredible. This is especially true of its cinematography. “La La Land” is easily distinguished by its long, sweeping shots which follow its actors for long stretches of time. We watch as our characters interact with the set and dance, giving their performances time to breathe and the audiences time to realize how impressive these routines are. When a musical number occurs, cuts are treated sparingly, more like blackouts in a traditional musical. The final sequence of the movie manages to even create the illusion of time passing in one continuous shot by using wheel-away sets and pantomiming in a way more common with stage productions.
There is no need for ridiculously over-the-top stunt work like in “The Greatest Showman” (It’s a terrible movie, change my mind!) or for the laughable need for realism that eventually gave us “Cats.” “La La Land” does not distract from the rough edges or even some of the arguable limits of the theater shows it was clearly based on. Instead, this movie uses its stylistic flourishes and Hollywood budget to package the awe and fun of attending a live performance. I am surprised that we haven’t seen more films learn from this example.
I am not without complaints, I admit. Perhaps my bitter singleness is revealing itself, but when I first saw “La La Land” (barely paying attention to it as it was put on in my living room) I interpreted the final sequence as suggesting more of a trade-off between following your dreams and the little moments in life. In one timeline, our leads reach stardom; in the other, they remain together and start a family. Turns out, what that final sequence was really suggesting was that stardom was inevitable and that our leads could have gotten both if they’d played their cards right. I personally find this to be a much less interesting message. I admit, I liked my initial assumption of what this movie was about more.
I do wish at points that “La La Land” had a bit more roughness to it, some more sand in this tropical paradise. But, this is not the day I want to look a gift horse in the mouth. “La La Land” is the movie musical, and I have never seen anybody who did not crack a smile seeing it.
So, dear reader, I hope that you realize that I like serious movies. Movies about theology or war or politics or race or love or hatred or stuff like that. The kind of film that I can hold on to as a temporary tonic to placate the imposter syndrome that is a bit of an inevitable consequence of going to a school like Stanford. People can’t sing in my movies! I like serious movies, movies where people live and die, movies that have real stakes to them. To leave your car to belt out a song amidst a carefully choreographed dance sequence? No. Absolutely not. Such a thing would degrade the sanctity of film as a mechanism for broadening the mind, for making a person think and making them uncomfortable. I went so far as to tell my good friend Noah that I hated musicals. He managed to convince me to watch “Singin’ in the Rain,” and I in turn managed to steel my mind and body and keep myself from smiling or tapping my foot along to the film’s insidious attempts to deceive me into enjoying it.
And one of the consequences of my performatively cynical taste in movies is that I have to pick sides. I have to say that one movie is better than another. And, after the snafu at the 2016 Academy Awards where “La La Land” seemed to get the nod over “Moonlight,” the obviously superior film, I had to double down on my support for “Moonlight” by leading a pointless crusade against “La La Land.” You see, “Moonlight” is a genuine masterpiece, one of the finest achievements of American film. Every frame seems to be wrought out of the titular substance with such lush cinematography that Roger Deakins would sell both his eyeballs to the devil if it meant he could construct a single frame half as beautiful as one lying on Jenkins’ cutting-room floor. It features several astonishing performances. Its tale of a young Black man struggling to come to terms with his sexuality is poignant, heart-rending, deeply emotionally arresting and sadly an outlier in an industry that still has a lot of work to do on diversity. And as a result of “Moonlight’s” genuinely generational perfection, its ability to elevate the craft, “La La Land” became to me, and I think a lot of people, a sort of stand-in for the moldy Hollywood milieu that “Moonlight” had risen past.
But then, against all odds, I ended up liking “La La Land.” And I realized that I was being super unfair to it. Reader, I hope you realize that I’m an idiot with a massive ego and that it takes a lot for an idiot with a massive ego to admit that he’s wrong. And here I am.
I’ll start off with the cinematography. To be clear, it’s not as good as Laxton and Jenkins’ extraordinary achievement in “Moonlight.” But Sandgren and Chazelle are still operating at a cut above the batting average in “La La Land,” with some really impressive long takes where the camera operator moves in rhythm with the music. The camera work is clearly handheld, and “La La Land” is so much better for the fleshly presence that it brings. The best part about the visuals of Chazelle’s film is indisputably the color palette. Los Angeles is a living oil painting in “La La Land” with deep reds and rich blues that pop in the night. The music is pretty good too!
And then, the narrative. For the first half of the movie, I was not enjoying it. At all. I still found the idea of people spontaneously breaking into song and dance bizarre. Moreover, the spontaneous song and dance seemed to contribute to the tone of a movie far too saccharine for my tastes. At first blush, “La La Land” seems to be yet another installment in Hollywood’s long tradition of self-adulatory unobjectionable meet-cutes where two attractive people manage to find a way to love each other despite the fact that scheduling their first date was slightly inconvenient. LA is portrayed as this magical land where the ordinary is alchemically transformed into something eternal and beautiful. Altogether far too sunny for my more, ahem, refined tastes. And the movie seems to start off with this almost relentless optimism that feels fake.
But Chazelle starts to subvert that narrative in interesting and profound ways. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the romance doesn’t end up totally as intended. At one point, Ryan Gosling’s Sebastien says that “LA worships everything but values nothing,” and Chazelle seems to be refuting that point (and my own cynicism) by articulating a very real type of value of Hollywood. Hollywood, Chazelle seems to be arguing, is not about the type of success that the movie’s characters attain, but rather about the bright optimism and love of art that propels them there. It doesn’t work out, perhaps. The romance may fade. But, Chazelle shows us that even if Hollywood doesn’t end up living to the hype, there is a real beauty to the romanticism that will continue to guide generations of romantics there.
So “La La Land” is still not a true masterpiece, I don’t think. It’s a little too proud of itself, and despite a depth that surprised me I still think it could have been more profound. It’s definitely way worse than “Moonlight,” with a fraction of the heart contained in that tale. But “La La Land” is still an ode to artists and dreamers that is lyrical, idyllic and strangely elegiac. It’s not the best movie I’ve watched on the power of art this COVID-movie-marathon — “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and “I Lost My Body” all come to mind — but it is still good. I’d watch it again.
I couldn’t figure out a way to fit this into the review naturally, so I’ll just ineptly tack it on at the end: Black Thought’s new album is fantastic.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at stanford.edu.