Thursday, December 29, 2016

LA LA LAND -- My review

Readers have been wondering why I haven’t been reviewing movies. Simple. I haven’t seen any.  I was too involved with my play and Tetris Classic.  Well, now I’m catching up. So here’s another one:

LA LA LAND is a bright Technicolor homage of the great movie musicals of the past while still maintaining the sensibility and vibe of the present. Not easy to do.
Visually, the film is gorgeous. If you like colors – wow. It’s like being inside Jimi Hendrix head. The opening production number on the crowded freeway was spectacular. Best opening since SAVING PRIVATE RYAN although the subject matter was, y’know, a little different.

Writer/Director Damien Chazelle (who gave us the fabulous WHIPLASH) has created a love letter to my favorite city the way Woody Allen has so often done with New York. (Thank you for not showing City of Industry.) It’s always sunny. It’s always bright and vivid. There’s always a big orchestra when you want to break out into song.

This is a film you will want to see on a big screen with THX sound. Your phone and ear buds won’t do it justice. If you’re lucky, the shit head next to you won’t be texting through the musical numbers.

The story takes a while to get going but ultimately it sucks you in. And the film is just brimming with interesting ideas.

The music was catchy and the lyrics were clever. Too bad the composers didn’t write HAMILTON. They might have won an Oscar for LA LA LAND.

Stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone could not be more charming or adorable.

So all this is leading up to me saying this is a super great movie and should win every award there is, right? Wrong. Because for all of its many attributes there is one small problem.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone can’t sing.  They can't sing a lick.

And that’s kind of important since this is a… well, MUSICAL.

They dance well, their acting is always top notch, they have chemistry, Gosling’s piano playing looks very credible (I don’t play the piano so I’m no expert. For all I know he was really just playing “Turkey in the Straw” and they dubbed in the real music.) But their voices are thin, they’re often off-key, and I believe the film really suffers from it.  I'd give anything for Simon Cowell to review this movie. 

You'd think Hollywood would have learned its lesson with Russell Crowe in LES MISERABLES.

Hey, singing is important in musicals. If you want to be an NFL quarterback you have to be able to throw a football. If you want to be “Miss America” you need to be a woman (although maybe not). There are certain requirements that must be met and for a musical, singing is one of them. Actually, singing is all of them. In the critics’ reviews I’m surprised so few of them noted that. To me it was sorta MAJOR. Superb singers are not hard to find.  THE VOICE finds twenty every year.

Great singing can lift a very good entertaining musical to a thrilling event. LA LA LAND was a well-crafted confection but never really transported me. 

I just kept thinking – same movie with a young Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway and the film would soar through the ionosphere.

My other thought: I imagine Natalie Wood watching LA LA LAND from the great beyond (they get Academy screeners up there but you go to Hell if you’re caught copying them) and saying, “Fuck! They overdubbed me in WEST SIDE STORY and I sang way better than that bitch!”

No movie this Oscar season has been as highly anticipated. And lots of people (and reviewers) love it. But I was surprised how many people were disappointed. The question is: Do you give it thumbs up because it’s very good or thumbs down because it falls short of greatness? I’m going with thumbs up. Natalie would go thumbs down.


sumerlad said...

I remember that Leonard Maltin liked the movie Chicago but also asked why viewers and critics of the movie seemed to be delighted and surprised that actors in a musical could sing and dance.

1955david said...

Hello. My wife and I watched the Cheers episode when Carla loses her Husband Eddie. You have mentioned before that they didn’t get along. How does the decision get made to lose a character? Is it he executives, or the Star. And is it a difficult path to write a death episode that’s funny yet poignant?

Roger Owen Green said...

I was telling someone just this morning their singing was serviceable. And I DID get sucked in - by Audition, there was a tear in my eye.

Darlene K said...

Now I can't wait to see this . . . we'll talk!

Unknown said...

VP81955 said...

Wanted to love it, but merely ended up liking it, alas.

Glad there was a scene where Ryan and Emma rode Angels Flight. One of these days, the rest of us will be able to board Olivet and Sinai.

Peter said...

Someone jokingly asked the other day if you're going to review Hacksaw Ridge, which has brought on my Friday question. You've written before about your feelings on Mel Gibson and your refusal to watch anything he's involved in ever again. My question is if you extends that to others who work with him, i.e. Andrew Garfield and Vince Vaughn are in Hacksaw Ridge, William H Macy was in Blood Father, and Kelsey Grammer was in Expendables 3. Do you lose respect for or stop talking to people who agree to do a movie with Gibson, or do you view them as working actors just earning a paycheck?

blinky said...

Musically it never had that "Stayin' Alive" moment, where you get that feeling you get when that new song hits its hook and it is like a full body rush of aural perfection.
I also wondered if Emma Stone has ever eaten a full meal since Superbad.

blinky said...

Speaking of movies you would have a ball reviewing:The Brothers Grimsby. It disappeared from theaters but we saw it streaming and it had some things in it I have NEVER seen on a movie screen before. The guys watching were laughing so hard at moments that we had to pause the movie. The women, not so much.

Joe said...

Friday question: If you today were to watch a MASH or Cheers that you didn't write but contributed to in the writers room, would you remember which jokes were yours?

PNW Corey said...

They should have just hired a real singer and dubbed it into the movie. Natalie Woods lip-synced her songs in West Side Story...

Diane D said...

I agree with Ken on almost everything, except I thought their singing and dancing were both mediocre. HOWEVER, for some reason, I thought they were adequate for this movie. i almost didn't go see it because I thought it would be just a pale imitation of the wonderful musicals of the past, but it was so different, and equally wonderful, that I loved it. I think the creators of the movie are much more likely to get the awards than the actors. All of the other elements of the movie seemed much more important than the actors. I like both ES and RG, but to me they seem miscast in these roles. Anyway, I loved it but it won't go on my all time favorites list.

Dixon Steele said...

I don't think having "singers" was ever the director's goal, as Emma Watson and Miles Teller were originally attached.

I thought the stars were charming, especially Stone, who got raves on Broadway a few years ago when she did CABARET.

cadavra said...

I didn't mind the less than perfect singing; it added a bit of authenticity. What I DID mind was how disagreeable their characters were. He's a complete asshole who treats her (and everyone else) like crap. She's an obsessive clod who's too blinded by his looks to realize he's a jerk. Why should we root for these two to succeed? Aren't the stars of romantic musicals supposed to be likable? The excellence of everything else was maimed by the giant hole in the film's center. Even the animals in the animated SING, deeply flawed as they are, generate empathy from us, to the point that we don't care who wins the contest because we like them all.

Mitchell Hundred said...

If that crack about Miss America was taking a stab at trans women, I'd like to ask you to refrain from that kind of humour in the future. Trans women are killed with alarming regularity, often by people who think they're being deceptive by presenting themselves as female (which they aren't: trans women are women, full stop). Anyway, jokes that imply that trans women are not real women just reinforce a harmful status quo, and I hope you'll try to be more conscious of the messages your language sends in the future.

By Ken Levine said...


I appreciate your concern, but it's a fucking joke. If a throwaway line in a humor blog so offends you please stop reading this blog. There comes a point where political correctness strangles comedy. Like I said, feel free to go elsewhere if my humor is not sensitive enough for you.

Astroboy said...

It's a shame Natalie didn't have a good singing voice, as you can hear in this clip. I enjoy listening to her, but I can obviously see why she gets overdubbed. The shame is when she sings so much of her personality comes through. This is from Daisy Clover doing "You're Going to Hear from Me", my favorite Natalie Wood movie. She's mesmerizing to watch, even singing badly (oh those eyes!).

-bee said...

There actually is a bit of a tradition of 'musicals' with not-great singing, check out this number from Jacques Demy's "Young Girls of Rochefort" from the 60's:

Some may not like it, but for others there is a certain charm to the imperfection.

Personally, I thought Gosling has a decent enough voice and Stones is even better, that the songs were written for non-powerhouse singers. Like another poster, I found Stone's rendition of the song about her aunt to be extremely moving.

I think my biggest problem with the movie was the very end - like she wouldn't have a few minutes now and then in her life to google her old flame to see what he was up to?

I think this film makes a very interesting companion piece to the musical from a few years ago, "Once", that has great songs and powerhouse singing, but cinematically is very 'plain'. I did enjoy the imaginative cinematic 'vision' of La La Land a lot.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Peter said...

Well done for standing your ground, Ken. There's being straight up offensive and hateful and there's making a mild joke and what you wrote was just a joke. I'm sick of people acting as thought police and wanting to use their sensitivities as the basis for censoring comedy. We might as well ban every joke ever created because someone somewhere might get offended by something.

Anonymous said...

I thought their voices were passable and fit with the theme of the movie. It just wasn't the sort of musical where everyone really belts out the songs. The movie played around with reality and its disappointment contrasting it with the good hearted optimism of old Hollywood musicals.

With this new take on musicals it fit that the tap shoes were muted and the singing voices were soft, but true. Just my take...could be a load of bs.


Mitchell Hundred said...

It was indeed a joke, but as others have pointed out, it was not just a joke. Nothing is ever just a joke.

And for the record, my concern isn't for myself or my feelings (since I'm not trans). It's for the safety and well-being of trans people.

Pat Reeder said...

Thanks for the review, and for your comments on today's actors not having the vocal chops to carry a musical. As the co-author of "Hollywood Hi-Fi," I've already inserted a mention of this film into our upcoming expanded and updated edition, along with a nod to Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You," grouping them together as hipper and more self-conscious versions of "At Long Last Love." In the newer films, the musical incompetence of the leads is presented as charming rather than just hilarious.

Rex Reed, a lover of old-style musicals, is one of the few critics who was not blown away by "LaLa Land," and for that reason. It's hard to replicate the old-style musicals when today's stars don't have the old-style talents. I agree that if they really wanted to do a tribute to MGM musicals, then they should have gone all the way and dubbed the leads with people who can actually sing. That's another thing I wrote for the new version of "Hollywood Hi-Fi," a separate chapter about all the great singers who dubbed in the voices of tonedeaf movie stars.

Speaking of "West Side Story," that film made ghost singing history in several ways. For instance, Marni Nixon dubbed all of Natalie Wood's songs, plus one of Rita Moreno's vocals was split between Rita, Marni and fellow ghost singer Betty Wand. So it was the first musical with one person providing the voices of two actors, and one character singing in three different voices in the same song. It was like a musical of "Sybil." It was still more honest than "South Pacific," though. That had a best-selling soundtrack LP where Mitzi Gaynor was virtually the only person on the screen or record jacket whose voice actually appeared on the album.

Finally, with a jazz singer wife, I am friends with a lot of jazz musicians, and I can assure you that they (especially the drummers) hate "Whiplash" and roll their eyes at how stupid it was. One who is also the percussion teacher at a major university jazz program here told me that if anyone tried to treat students that way, he'd either be fired and sued, or the student would deck him. Drummers tend to have well-developed biceps and not the most laid-back personalities.

Peter said...

At the risk of prolonging this...

Mitchell, I'm truly shocked that you're comparing what Ken wrote to Trump telling his supporters that the "Second Amendment people could do something about Hillary". Seriously, calm down and get some perspective.

If as you say a joke is never just a joke, then I guess the scene in Airplane! in which the Captain asks the kid about gladiator movies and naked guys wrestling must therefore mean Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker were advocating paedophilia. It must mean Zemeckis and Gale wanted to encourage ambitious scientists to buy plutonium off Libyan terrorists with that scene in Back to the Future. And Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo should apologize for the Brazilian restaurant scene in Bridesmaids in which the characters get food poisoning and suffer diarrhea, because surely that's not just a joke, it's a racist, xenophobic, offensive attack on the hygiene level of Brazilian restaurants in the United States.

MikeN said...

I thought La La Land was a sequel to Babe set in Fargo.

Mitchell Hundred said...

I'm not saying that there's a 1:1 correlation between those two statements (obviously there are significant differences between that situation and this one). I'm saying that the same justification is being used to defend both of them.

MikeN said...

Regarding ghost singing history, Indian films have been doing this from the beginning. All the hit songs you see in their movies are lipsynced. The main difference is that fans there know the singers and treat them like celebrities, some will even conduct concerts in the US, like the guy who won the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire.

Greg Ehrbar said...

"Speaking of "West Side Story," that film made ghost singing history in several ways. For instance, Marni Nixon dubbed all of Natalie Wood's songs, plus one of Rita Moreno's vocals was split between Rita, Marni and fellow ghost singer Betty Wand. So it was the first musical with one person providing the voices of two actors, and one character singing in three different voices in the same song."

That's what happened with "Mame," too. Reportedly, both Lisa Kirk and Gloria Wood added notes to Lucille Ball's singing. Sometimes the ghost singers will add just one high note, as Gene Merlino did for Don Francks in Finian's Rainbow ("That Great Come-and-Get-It Day") and Alan Menken did for Paul Kandel in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" ("The Bells of Notre Dame").

I have the book and CD editions of "Hollywood Hi-Fi" and look forward to the next edition.

Jay Livingston said...

1. Gosling learned to play piano for this film, and it's really him playing. No piano doubles.
2. @bee. Deneuve doesn't have a great voice, but I think it's really her singing in Demoiselles and Umbrellas. La La Land looks like it owes as much to those movies as to the Hollywood musicals, especially the ending of Umbrellas.
3. The use of those Hollywood tropes is obviously an homage. But the plot also is really old Hollywood cliches -- less an homage than laziness or an inability to come up with something more interesting. (The same goes for Whiplash.)
4. The Gosling character is supposed to be a jazz pianist, but when he plays solo, there is nothing jazz-like about the music.
5. The scenes where Emma Stone dances reminded me of Dancing With the Stars. As Dr. Johnson said of . . . (I'd better not say lest Mitchell be in earshot) "like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

Nancy Beach said...

The excellent pianist Randy Kerber doubles for Ryan Gosling in this picture. Trumpeter Wayne Bergeron is also featured. They are both wonderful, accomplished stylistically versatile first call musicians who have been veterans of the Los Angeles studio freelance scene for many years.

Nancy Beach

Gerry said...

Hi Ken, this blog post brings to mind one of my absolutely drop dead funniest CHEERS lines, when Diane barges into the ballet audition (I'm paraphasing a bit): "So, pay no attention to what my arms and legs are doing, for I must dance, damn it, I must!"

Craig Gustafson said...

My wife Margie and I saw “La La Land” yesterday. The movie made me sick.
Literally. A frequently swirling camera and my need for new glasses meant that, beginning around the second half, keeping my eyes on the screen was very difficult. But that’s hardly the movie’s fault.
ASSETS: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are terrific actors. The only other Emma Stone movie I’ve seen is the lovably stupid “Gangster Squad,” and I don’t really remember her in it. But what’s not to love about a redhead with large, heavy-lidded eyes? (Carolyn Jones Eyes drive me wild.)
The movie is gorgeously shot.
It has one of the GREATEST movie shorthand moments I’ve ever seen:
Stone and Gosling have a fairly bitter argument, and you wonder if it’s something from which they can recover. Cut to the record turntable, at the end of a side. Needle looping over silence. The music has ended. The relationship is over.
LIABILITIES: Opening number - fabulously staged; couldn’t understand a word they were singing.

Ripped off from “Brazil,” where you realize that the Happy Ending is only a fantasy Jonathan Pryce has while being tortured. I also don’t buy that patrons in a jazz club would sit there silently while a monotonous one-handed tune is being played. But this was a MAJOR “Craig can’t look at this without needing a bucket” scene, so I didn’t catch a lot of it.

Biggest problem - It’s a musical. You need triple-threat people in the leads and there are plenty of them out there. I don’t buy the argument that Emma Stone’s wispy little voice and Ryan Gosling’s off-key mumbling are “realistic.” If I wanted realism, I wouldn’t be sitting at a movie that opens with a giant dance number on the Los Angeles freeway. I’m having auditions for a musical at the end of next month, and I would not cast either of them.
Well, maybe Emma Stone. But that’d be the eyes talking.

Similarly, their dancing was such that (with much rehearsal and great patience from the choreographer) I could do it. I don’t want to see a musical and believably say, “I could do that.” It’s like electing a president because you want to have a beer with him – it’s not a legitimate reason for your vote.

ADDENDUM: We saw the movie exactly one year after our trip to California, and saw a LOT of places we had visited. At one point, Ryan Gosling is singing on the Santa Monica Pier, and during one shot we saw the stretch of beach where we (theoretically, if you are a law enforcement official) might have dispersed the ashes of Margie’s mom into the ocean.
CRAIG: Look. There we are!
MARGIE: And there’s my mom. And there’s my mom. And THERE’S my mom...