Premise: An aspiring musician and an aspiring actress meet and fall in love in LA, only to find that life is rooting against them ending up together.
About: Damien Chazelle is a force to be reckoned with. After landing one of the hottest young actors in Hollywood, Miles Teller, for his previous film, Whiplash, the director secured an Oscar for Teller’s co-star in the film, J.K. Simmons (little-known fact – Simmons has shot 32 films and TV shows since 2014’s Whiplash). Whiplash may not have wowed the masses (it only made 13 million at the box office), but once you win an Oscar for an actor? EVERY ACTOR wants to work with you. Which is how the 30 year-old Chazelle has found himself directing two of the biggest stars in the world for La La Land, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Details: 95 pages
Reading a writer-director draft of a musical without any lyrics is sort of like looking at an architect’s notes for his next house. “I want a round window in the bathroom.” “Still wondering if we should open up the living room area.”
Since the director’s writing for himself rather than the reader, you feel a bit like an outsider looking in, trying to decipher what the hell this guy thinks he’s doing. With that said, Quentin Tarantino writes some of the best scripts in the business. So it’s not like it can’t be done. Where it gets complicated with La La Land is that we’re missing out on the make-or-break aspect of the movie – the musical numbers. Say what you will about the power of screenwriting, but there’s no way to convey how a song and dance will feel until you see it on the big screen. The written word cannot compare to music.
Now some of you might ask, “Well then why even review the script?”
Good question. It’s because what’s left is pure story. Stripped of all its bells and whistles, La La Land is pure character and plot. And I’m curious to see if those characters and that plot worked.
Sebastian is a 28 year-old Thelonious Monk wannabe, a guy from another era who shuns the catapult-to-Youtube-fame the current system celebrates. Sebastian wants to suffer for his art in order to find that inspiration to create the kind of greatness Monk used to create on a nightly basis.
27 year-old Mia is also from a bygone era, the kind of girl who will quote Ingrid Bergman over Kim Kardashian, and is trying to use that energy to break into the toughest business in the world – ACTING.
After a failed one-night stand, Mia finds herself looking for a way home, only to drift into a dark club playing some of the most beautiful piano music this side of Sam from Casablanca. And what do you know? It’s Sebastian playing the tune.
The two don’t get along at first, but soon find mutual respect in their unique approaches to their craft. Within a few weeks, they move in together. From there, Mia focuses on writing a one-woman play to raise her acting profile. And she encourages Sebastian to branch out from being the James Dean of jazz and join a band, even if their music is more pop-centric than he’s used to.
That band ends up becoming bigger than expected, and soon women are throwing themselves at Sebastian after his bring-the-house-down solos. Mia begins to wonder, “What have I done?” This leads to friction in the relationship, which leads to them breaking up, and us wondering if they’ll ever get back together.
Oh yeah, and musical numbers are interspersed throughout all of this. The opening scene is probably the best, a giant number on a carmageddon highway with every driver getting out and singing their frustrations. As the movie goes on though, the numbers become more intimate, focusing on Sebastian and Mia’s love.
Here’s the big question with La La Land, though: Is this the next Once? Or is it the next Begin Again?
So yesterday we were talking about voice. Voice consists of the way you see the world based on your life experiences up until this point. Say for instance, two different writers are writing a funeral scene. One of those writers may focus on the faces of the crying family as their loved one is lowered into the ground. The other writer may focus on the beauty of the moment – the way the sunlight hits the tombstone or the way the wife leans down to kiss her infant son. A third writer may find humor in the moment. The drunk priest stumbling over his words or the coffin unexpectedly dropping and slamming into the grave.
How different people see different things is how voice is expressed. And sadly, I don’t line up with Chazelle’s voice. I don’t know what it is but there’s a disconnect somewhere. He went to music school. I went to fuck-around school. I felt it with Grand Piano. I felt it with Whiplash. And I feel it here.
My biggest problem with La La Land is that it all feels so cliché. The pretentious angst-ridden musician who’s too good for pop music. The eager young actress who’s so hip she likes Audrey Hepburn and Janet Leigh over Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone.
And when these two hang out, they go to all the well-known places in LA. The Griffith Observatory. The La Brea Tar Pits. The Getty Center. Ironically, it may be me who’s the problem here, as I live here and know these places well. The rest of the world, likely, does not. But still. It always felt to me like Chazelle wasn’t digging deep enough. He always seemed a minute away from setting a scene at Mann’s Chinese Theater.
It looks like he’s banking on the musical element being the “originality” aspect that makes up for all the rest of the unoriginality. And maybe that will be true. We do get a zero-gravity dance number at the Griffith Observatory so it’s not like it’s pure cliché.
But I kept waiting to care about these two and it never happened. Sebastian is self-absorbed. Mia’s SO obvious with her “I only like old actresses” vibe. And it’s safe to say that if I don’t like your male lead and I don’t like your female lead, then I sure as hell don’t care if they get together or not. And since this movie is predicated on us caring about these two getting together, La La Land felt more to me like Hannah Montana than Adele.
In the end, La La Land feels like a movie from someone who’s lived in LA for six months and is basing his story on the surface level version of the city he’s experienced during that time. Los Angeles is actually much deeper and more complex than it’s being made out to be here, and when you couple that with two empty lead characters, the musical numbers are going to have to be off the charts to save this film.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The 20-something character who idolizes famous dead actors/musicians is a trope that’s been used so much in film that I’d think long and hard before including it in your own screenplay.
What I learned 2: I don’t think this script had a single surprise (outside of Sebastian’s harsh rejection of Mia’s initial advance). Everything was too perfect, too predictable. You HAVE to surprise your reader/audience to keep them on their toes.