You’d be hard-pressed to find critics out there who dare question the greatness of “La La Land,” a movie musical that is a favorite for the Best Picture Award at Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony.
The film follows an aspiring jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) as he falls for an actress (Emma Stone) with similar ambitions. It’s a giant love letter to Los Angeles, struggling Hollywood artists, and the movie musicals Tinseltown was once famous for worldwide.
Hollywood loves movies about itself.
Hollywood loves movies about itself. Those who live and work there love films that serve as thank you notes and pats on the back to Los Angeles and vintage filmmaking.
Take “The Artist” as a prime example. The 2011 black-and-white silent feature was a throwback to the wonderfully impressive movies of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and others from the silent film era. “The Artist” earned near-universal acclaim from critics and took home the Best Picture Academy Award.
While the film was in no way bad, it was not all that great, either. Compared to the genre it was paying tribute to, it was nothing. It wasn’t a feature that could stand all that well on its own. It deserved some praise — but not the most coveted film award of the year. “La La Land” seems to essentially be “The Artist” of this year.
“Why is ‘La La Land’ so charmless yet so wildly overpraised?” asked film critic Armond White for National Review. “The opening musical number (‘Another Day of Sun’), in which a traffic jam on the L.A. freeway turns into a dance routine by frustrated drivers who leap out of their cars and prance about dressed in pastel colors, is an embarrassment. Off-key in several ways, the set-up makes no sense, the song’s ironic uplift is cheesy, the choreography is chaotic, and the preening multiculturalism of the dancers (soon forgotten in the whites-only love story) feels forced and insulting.”
Therein lies the major problem with “La La Land.” It’s a movie meant to serve as an homage to the romantic musicals of old that Hollywood was so fond of, yet it pales in comparison to those films — something a handful of critics have noted.
“Ryan Gosling is no Fred Astaire. For die-hard musical fans like me, ‘La La Land’ disappoints,” wrote arts reporter Robin Pogrebin in The New York Times. “Let’s face it, they [Gosling and Stone] can’t really sing or dance. And the novelty of seeing celebrities try to pull it off wears thin pretty fast.”
A video created by Editor Sara Preciado shows a side-by-side comparison with the musical numbers from “La La Land” to the original features the filmmakers intended to homage.
The trouble with the video is one gets to see directly how crude and empty the dancing and scenes look in “La La Land” compared to the originals. The older scenes look like the real deal, while the bits from “La La Land” look like cheap imitation.
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“It looks like ‘La La Land’ is the next ‘The Artist,'” wrote movie critic William Bibbiani in his review for Crave Online. “‘The Artist’ was all anybody could talk about in the early days of 2012.”
He continued, “But fast forward five years, and how do we remember ‘The Artist’? It rarely comes up in conversation except in reference to its Best Picture win, and although the competition wasn’t spectacularly stiff that year (it competed against the likes of ‘Hugo,’ ‘Midnight in Paris,’ ‘The Help’ and ‘The Descendants’), it is often suggested that the Academy went a little too gaga for ‘The Artist’ and perhaps should have awarded another film instead.”
Even some fellow artists aren’t buying into the musical’s hype. Actor Tony Danza told the radio show “Todd & Jayde in the Morning” that he was wasn’t impressed with the movie. “I watched it twice because I thought I missed something,” the actor said. “It’s hard, growing up with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor and Fred Astaire, it’s pretty hard to go and watch . . . I think Ryan Gosling’s fine…He’s not a tap dancer.”
If there was a film from “La La Land” writer/director Damien Chazelle that deserved a Best Picture victory, it was 2014’s “Whiplash.” That was a movie that earned a nomination for Best Picture, but was overshadowed by “Birdman” — a film that, similar “La La Land,” was a love letter to the struggles of celebrity and Hollywood.
Unlike “La La Land,” “Whiplash” was a unique story about the struggle of young artists and the intensity of love that someone can have for their craft. “La La Land” is a mediocre nod to musicals that Chazelle loves, while “Whiplash” was a completely original, riveting, and layered story that stood on its own. Chazelle’s musical is a hollow attempt at something that probably should have never been anything more than a short film or music video.
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“La La Land” is more impressed with itself than many musical fans will ever be. After all, will this be the musical audiences are talking about in 10 years? Or will they still be chatting about “Singin’ in the Rain,” “West Side Story,” “An American in Paris,” and other classics?
If films like “The Artist” and “La La Land” prove anything, it’s that Hollywood loves itself, and folks there especially love movies about themselves. However — compared to the genre it means to honor, “La La Land” just plain stinks.