I waited a long time to watch La La Land, mostly because I was afraid it would break my heart. And I wasn’t wrong. It did, in all the worst ways.
It’s been out for a year, which means I had a lot of time to read reviews about the film before seeing it. The film’s charm, I got the impression, lay in its affection for and references to Los Angeles, and old musicals, and the Golden Age of Hollywood. It seemed to touch something deep and sentimental about these things amongst people with an attachment to the city and its history. In short, if you already felt fondly about Los Angeles, and musicals, and movies, then this film hit all the feels.
I like Los Angeles. I love dancing. I adore musicals. This film should have been a slam dunk for me. I am 100% its demographic.
And this is where the heartbreak comes in. It only got halfway there.
La La Land is undeniably a love letter to Los Angeles. The city is a pivotal and, I would argue, principal character in La La Land. The story may nominally be about the relationship between Sebastian and Mia, but their love affair has a third wheel, and that wheel is the city of L.A.
Of course, lots of movies feature Los Angeles as a character. I can think of a bunch just off the top of my head that do it better: Sunset Boulevard, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, Singing in the Rain, Double Indemnity, and Swingers spring immediately to mind, and I’m not even trying that hard.
Still, I lived in Los Angeles, once upon a time, and I started getting all the warm fuzzies I was supposed to get the moment those people started singing on the highway, and on some level, isn’t that the point? The film skipped between the Rialto Theater, to the Griffith Observatory, to the 105, and every time it did, I smiled.
Unfortunately, it is less successful – I would argue a lot less successful – as an homage to classic movie musicals. I think this is because you have to actually know something about something to craft an homage to it, and I don’t get the feeling these guys actually know that much about musicals, or old movies, or classic hollywood. Like, maybe the extent of their knowledge is that they saw a few of them once.
This is immediately apparent in the casting. While both stars are charming, neither can sing or dance. As a result, the production numbers are weak sauce, impressive only if you didn’t know what a real movie musical number should look like. It’s not like Hollywood doesn’t have any singing or dancing talent. Was Channing Tatum unavailable? Luke Evans? I don’t know if Channing Tatum can sing, or Luke Evans can dance, but they’ve both got a leg up on Ryan Gosling, who can do neither.
The singers weren’t helped, though, by the fact that whoever did the mixing had apparently never seen a movie musical, or listened to a Broadway cast album. The vocals were routinely drowned out by the orchestration. WTF, La La Land? You had all the money. Hire someone from New York who knows something.
As I said, the whole thing broke my heart a little.
Want to see a true homage to the classic hollywood system? Watch Hail, Caesar. Coincidentally, Channing Tatum does a fantabulous send up of a 1940s tap number in the middle of it. It’s a weirdly awesome amalgamation of Anchor’s Away, On the Town, and South Pacific’s “There Ain’t Nothing Like a Dame.” Tatum may not be a tap dancer by training (although this effort is pretty damn good), but he’s all Gene Kelly in mannerism and styling. You can watch it here. Now that’s what an homage looks like.