We go Gaga for La La Land

Christopher Maher: Hey Sam, don’t know if you noticed this, but La La Land could also read as “L.A. L.A. Land” because the movie takes place in LA.  Isn’t that a neat trick?  Anyway, as you well know (since we saw it together) I was really moved by this movie, even though it was essentially just a retread of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (they even use the awesome trick of just reusing the same love theme over and over again, which I adore).  What’d you think, you uncrying robot?

Sam Russell: That is definitely an…interesting way to read into the title. I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s called “La La Land” not because it takes place in LA but because the characters sing in the movie like, “la la la la laaaaa!” you know? Because it’s a musical. So that’s definitely why that’s the title, and for no other reason.

You call me an uncrying robot, which I think is interesting, because it’s not that I didn’t cry for lack of an emotional reaction. When the film ended I turned to my left and Liza (for readers who don’t know us, Liza is my girlfriend who was also at the theater with us) was sobbing and I turned to my right and you, Christopher, were shedding several tears. I was grinning ear to ear. I was incredibly thrilled that we got to watch such a beautifully crafted send up to one of my favorite films of all time, the previously mentioned Umbrellas of Cherbourg. When it became clear that the conclusion of this film matched Umbrellas’ bittersweet (80% bitter, 20% sweet) sucker punch of an ending, via Singing in the Rain drug trip montage, I was over the moon excited.

CM: La La Land is indeed nothing if not exhilarating.  Much like my article on Whiplash, I should of had an inkling of where the plot might be headed, but that didn’t deprive me of the pleasure of seeing it play out, and what’s more I think Damien Chazelle is light enough on his feet and unpredictable enough that there were a few moments I found myself really in doubt.  Besides, it’s a musical, which is exciting like nothing else – they keep singing and dancing and there was so much Jazz.  And it makes such great use of its roots, recreating long sequences with great adoration while stilling bringing something new to the table.

But I’d like to focus on something besides plot (because the plot itself is pretty standard love story fare).  What really elevated this movie for me, beyond the exuberant and transporting musical and dance numbers, was a knockout performance.  Emma Stone really blew me away – and though the ushers cleaning the theater after we left said “that’s too much Emma Stone for me” I really think she cemented herself as a stand up actress.  There wasn’t a single moment of that film I didn’t feel what she was feeling, with her happiness and nerves and sadness all playing as totally authentic in the way that I felt each emotion along with her.

SR: I agree that Emma Stone’s performance was fantastic. I’ve always liked her and Ryan Gosling, although in this film I think I land somewhere between you and that usher. Stone’s performance, for me, was undermined by her celebrity. It was hard for me to separate Mia, struggling actress hopeful, and Emma Stone, mega-star sensation. Her acting is terrific, but the iconography of her face was distracting. Same for Ryan Gosling. His performance wasn’t as knock-your-socks-off as Stone. It was his standard charming dude routine, which he’s great at, but it doesn’t stop him from looking just like Ryan Gosling: actor!

Let’s talk about the cinematography. The opening number was very grounded in the visual language of modern musical (taking the lead from films like Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, and Birdman, which is not a musical but is about broadway and feels very theatrical) – one long unbroken take, whizzing around the set on a steadicam. It works great, the camera dances along to the music with the cast.

One musical number broke from this. The scene where Mia and Sebastian are singing coyly about how they don’t like each other very much (but they totally do) the cinematography reverts to old Hollywood film grammar. Long takes, but stable, subtle movements. There’s very little change in the shot size. They occasionally push in, and pull out, but we always see the actors full body to capture the unbroken dance number. This is a direct reference to Singing in the Rain (Gosling even recreates the iconic swinging around the lightpost shot). Simple, classic, awesome. The hazy orange magenta haze LA skyline even looked like a matte painting.


CM: Yeah, the musical numbers are so stunning.  While watching the first one all I could think was “this is so intricate, if someone messes up and they have to go back to one it must take them like an hour to just get back to where they started”.  Really well done, and as you say, some really impressive camera work throughout.  The surrealness of the whole piece worked extremely well – the camera work and design reinforce it, as do a number of artistic decisions (I’m a sucker for scenes where all the other characters move slowly except the main character, as at the pool party early in the film which isolates Emma Stone), and it all of course goes back to the title of La La Land.  Musicals always hover on the edge of reality and transcendence of said reality, and it’s a smart way to critique our own tenuous grip of reality.

I give the movie nine out of ten la la lands.

SM: I give this movie a seven point five out of ten.


CM: J.K. Simmons was barely in this movie!

5 thoughts on “We go Gaga for La La Land

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