‘La La Land’ review: A movie I have a love-hate relationship with

Emma Stone as Mia and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian in La La Land
Emma Stone as Mia and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian in La La Land

Today is as good a day as any other to talk about La La Land, a movie that inspires mixed feelings in me. (Also known as the film which lost Best Picture to Moonlight in the most public Oscars flub ever.)

I knew there was a movie called La La Land in the making, but for the longest time, I had no idea what it was about. The cast was promising, because I have liked Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as a pair ever since Crazy, Stupid, Love., but all the IMDb page told us in the months leading up to the movie’s release was “A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles” — which doesn’t sound exciting in the least. The teaser trailer didn’t offer many clues on its real nature either: I thought it was a psychological thriller, or a love story gone terribly wrong, because the teaser is sombre and shows them running away urgently/moving slowly/bathed in red lights etc. (And it’s true, the movie is sort of about a love story gone wrong, but I was envisioning something more sinister.)

Then the second trailer came out, and disabused me of that notion. But it still looked like a melancholy romance, which I have zero interest in watching, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (and J.K. Simmons, whom I love!) be damned.

Around this period, the movie premiered at the film festivals leading up to awards season (Venice, Telluride and TIFF), and stark raving reviews started pouring in from critics, who GUSHED about it like it was the Second Coming. (In the early days before the film opened in wide release, it had a nearly perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes.) I was extremely surprised, because the two trailers so far did not inspire much confidence in me.

(The movie should have released the final trailer much sooner, because THAT then showed the true crowd-pleasing essence of the film. The overwhelming critical reception might have pulled me into the theatre finally, but if I had based it on the first two trailers alone, I would not have watched the film.)

Then I caught an early preview of the film. For personal reasons I will not disclose, I went into the movie almost determined to hate it. I sat through the movie with a dismissive attitude, but in the end, I couldn’t help but be begrudgingly won over into liking it a little, though my enthusiasm wasn’t very high. (My colleagues were less forgiving and didn’t think it would do well locally. I thought it would do better than they expected, but definitely not as phenomenally as it ended up doing. It really benefited from its Golden Globe wins and Oscar nominations in January.)

Parts that I enjoyed:

  • I was looking out for the opening highway scene, because it was one of the things that the critics loved to the high heavens, so I had huge expectations. They weren’t met on my first viewing, though I thought the choreography and long tracking shots were impressive. It was only after my colleague told me that part of the musical beat that I love (and can be found in the final trailer at the 0:50 mark) came from that song, that I went back and paid attention to the opening scene again.

  • The tap dancing scene. I thought it very sweet.

  • The final scene, the “what-if” montage that made a medley of all the musical themes in the movie. It was beautiful and bittersweet and helped me end the movie on a high. Up till that point, I remained rather distant from the movie, because it was just a typical romance/story about chasing one’s dreams to me, and I didn’t feel invested in Mia and Sebastian’s relationship. The “what-if” montage helped me be invested in their relationship and feel sorry that they didn’t end up together.

I still have plenty of grouses. I was displeased that La La Land earned the most Golden Globe wins in history (7), and tied for most Oscar nominations (14) with Titanic and All About Eve, because I don’t think it deserved that many. I didn’t feel that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling did anything special here to warrant their acting nominations. Also, I *hated* “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, so the Oscar win and nomination were undeserved in my eyes.

Plus, it wasn’t until much, much later that I found out this musical beat, which I also love, came from the song “Someone in the Crowd”. I always thought it was from the highway scene. (The montage medley confused me.) But besides that specific part, I didn’t like the song. Which makes it only two songs I like out of the soundtrack?

But I love the score (the background orchestral accompaniment, and different from the songs, though the musical themes in the songs run through the score as well). And I agree that Damien Chazelle deserves Best Director for being so young and having the vision to pull off the many moving parts of this ode to old Hollywood musicals. Plus, it’s only his second major feature film — his first was Whiplash, the brilliant and intense film about a promising young drummer (Miles Teller) whose dreams are buoyed/crushed by his crazy fierce, emotionally abusive music instructor (J.K. Simmons) who stops at nothing to realise his students’ potential. I loved that film too, which earned a few Oscar wins and nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons, so it’s not like Damien Chazelle is an upstart one-hit wonder. I expect him to do more great things.

(By the way, Miles Teller was supposed to be in La La Land, but he was replaced by Ryan Gosling instead. So was Emma Watson by Emma Stone. I’m glad neither of them ended up in it, because I don’t think they are right for the characters. I am one of those who thinks that Emma Watson isn’t a good actress, merely an average one; and Miles Teller gives off a douchey vibe. They would have given me more reasons to dislike the film, and the montage medley wouldn’t have been able to save it.

I still don’t love the film, still don’t think it is the level of brilliant that people praise it to be; but the more I rewatch my favourite parts, the more I like them. That has to do.