One month ago, La La Land was all but assured an Oscar for Best Picture; it had frontrunner buzz like nobody’s business.
Lately, however, something has shifted. The more people talk about the movie, the more they say they like it, but they don’t love it.
No one seems to articulate why. I’m not sure if it’s Hollywood posturing because you’re not allowed to say anything negative about your peers (Michael Bay accepted, of course), or if they just can’t put their finger on what’s wrong. As a nobody with nothing to lose, I’ll put a theory out there:
La La Land is a great movie trapped inside a lousy musical.
Having seen it, I cannot tell you a single thing about a single song. No melody remains inside me; no lyric comes to the forefront of my memory.
And that’s a problem.
The film’s opening has been discussed at length; it contains sweeping shots of a traffic-jam atop the meeting point of the 110 and 105 freeways. There’s singing, dancing, bicycle tricks, parkour…
…and it all falls flat.
After a few moments of waiting to be enraptured, I looked around the theater. Not a single face seemed enthralled, or entranced, or any other “e” word that might work. Everyone was all just… watching. Rote.
Think of openings in other musicals. Grease. The opening track is inescapably catchy; if you close your eyes you can hear it in your mind, “Grease is the word…” South Park, Bigger, Longer & Uncut: “There’s a bunch of birds in the sky…” The Muppet Movie… “Why are there so many songs about rainbows?”
(And speaking of rainbows, The Wizard of OZ. I mean, come on.)
No song in La La Land makes you hum, tap your foot, makes you smile, or moves your heart. There’s no “Would you like to build a snowman?” to remain with you long after the credits fade.
Think of the best musical of all time: Singing in the Rain. That alone has three songs you can hum right off the top of your head. There’s the title track, Make ‘Em Laugh, and Good Morning. Catchy, toe-tapping masterpieces, all of them.
In La La Land, every number is said to contain a reference to an iconic musical film from Hollywood’s past. Which is fine, but it never captures their magic. The spontaneity of people bursting into song and dance just doesn’t work here.
Sometimes ambition exceeds ability. You want to write a musical, so you add music to a movie that doesn’t need it. That’s what happened to La La Land. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has a background in jazz, and wanted to bring that to his formidable filmmaking chops. He had already done so with his first film, Whiplash, so why not expand on it in his second go ‘round?
Why not? Because it’s difficult. The ability to write a good song is amazing. If I could write a hit song, I would be doing that instead of hammering away at this piece. Writing great music is difficult. To quote Jimmy Dugan: “If it wasn’t, everyone would do it.”
What kicked the Oscar buzz into gear is the fact the ending of La La Land blows people away. It is incredibly powerful. Emotional. Breaks your heart in all the right ways. But the further you get away from anything, the more you notice flaws. “Good from afar; far from good” as the saying goes. While you leave the theater incredibly moved, you soon find yourself thinking back about the overall film and wishing it had been a straightforward story, with no songs.
Hollywood loves itself, this is known. Given that La La Land is a love letter to Hollywood, Hollywood’s first instincts are to promote it. The instant La La Land came out, people were talking about how good it is. Every member of the Academy has been through auditions, and sacrificed relationships to get where they are, just as shown in the film. It’s an industry story in an industry town. And it’s great. Don’t forget that. It’s a well-told story, with fantastic acting; Ryan Gosling is compelling, and Emma stone is wonderful.
But it’s not a great, or even good musical.
And that could (and should) be its Achilles Heel come awards night.