After his success with Whiplash (2014), writer/director Damien Chazelle turned his attentions to this musical ode to Hollywoodland. The six Oscar-winner (Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Original Song) was hailed as a throwback to the Golden Era musicals, but don’t get too excited – despite all the hoopla, in the end it is really just a heavily stylized romance with your typical Hollywood leads who neither have the chops to do the singing nor the dancing for a real musical extravaganza, which La La Land isn’t really.
I’ve said on a number of occasions that Hollywood loves to fawn over itself, so it comes as no surprise that La La Land took home so many statuettes, but in comparison to other films that were throwbacks or odes to Hollywood or classic filmmaking, such as The Artist or Cinema Paradiso, La La Land is a lightweight.
The story follows two struggling Los Angeles artists — Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actress from the Midwest who by day works as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot in between failed auditions and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) a jazz pianist whose reverence for classic jazz leaves him struggling with gigs at parties and playing Christmas tunes in restaurants. The two start up a romance that eventually buckles under the pressure of their struggles to fulfill their Hollywood dreams while staying true to their ideals. Mia has her confidence as an actress shaken when her one-woman stage show goes poorly and Sebastian begins to sell out his musical ideals when he signs up to play keyboards with a jazz band whose music keeps moving further away from jazz and closer to Top 40 R&B and hip-hop.
Visually the film is stunning thanks to cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle). It is awash in vibrant primary colors and Los Angeles looks like the dream world land of milk and honey people often imagine it to be, an idea brought home by the infectiously surreal musical sequences where an entire freeway is shutdown by a song and dance routine or where Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dance there way right up into the sky.
Those are the good parts, but the dream world is dissolved when one realizes, hey, these two folks can’t really sing that well and they can’t even dance that well. Watching Ryan Gosling dance while trying oh so hard not to look down at his feet is a long way from Fred Astaire and the Golden Age of the Hollywood musical. This is like the Dancing with the Stars equivalent of the musical. Chazelle also spoils the fantasy with his dialogue by having Ryan Gosling drop an F-bomb. That never happened in The Sound of Music.
La La Land is in the end a romance that gets the stylistic elements perfect, mixing the wonderment of a film like Amélie with your average “meet cute” story such as Sleepless in Seattle. The songs are good, but poorly performed as are the dance routines. This just may be one of the most confounding big Oscar winners to come along in years.
La La Land was shot in CinemaScope at the 2.55:1 aspect ratio on 35mm Kodak Vision3 500T 5219 and Vision3 250D 5207 film stock with Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2 cameras and Panavision C- and E-Series lenses. One scene was also shot on 16mm film. The HEVC 2160p 4K Ultra HD with HDR10 high dynamic range captures this filmic quality effortlessly with one exception (more on that later). The film grain is crisp and organic and the HDR brings the vibrant primary color palette of blues, reds, and yellows to life. Highlights like street lamps or the skyline at night really pop as well. The Blu-ray version looks good as well, but the colors don’t quite look as vivid and the grain isn’t as crisp. There is one really bad flaw I spotted on the Ultra HD and that is around the 17:10 mark where Emma Stone first walks into the nightclub wearing the blue dress where Ryan Gosling is playing the piano. As the lights begin to dim around her, terrible banding and posterization can be seen, almost like rings forming around her in the shadows. Perhaps it is due to compression or the upscaling process – this was taken from a 2K DI.
The mix for La La Land comes to Ultra HD and Blu-ray in an immersive Dolby Atmos track. Rather than being an aggressive, in your face mix with solid discrete effects, this one places the sweeping musical score and the snippets of jazz performances through the room. There is one scene where a smoke alarm goes off and it sounded like one in my house was going off somewhere, so that Atmos mix was definitely effective.
La La Land comes with over three-hours of special features on both the Ultra HD and the BD, which up to now has been unusual for these Ultra HD releases, which tend to load the extras onto the included Blu-ray Disc only. An audio commentary with Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz is a good option
- Audio commentary with writer/director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz
- Featurettes (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 01:19:58):
- Another Day of Sun: They Closed Down A Freeway
- La La Land’s Great Party
- Ryan Gosling: Piano Student
- Before Whiplash: Damien Chazelle’s Passion Project
- La La Land’s Love Letter to Los Angeles
- The Music of La La Land
- John Legend’s Acting Debut
- The Look of Love: Designing La La Land
- Ryan and Emma: Third Time’s the Charm
- Epilogue: The Romance of the Dream
- Damien & Justin Sing: The Demos
- “What a Waste of a Lovely Night” (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 00:01:55)
- City of Stars (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 00:03:13)
- Marketing Gallery:
- Theatrical Trailer 1
- Theatrical Trailer 2
- Theatrical Trailer 3
- Song Selection
The Final Assessment
La La Land has a lot to admire, but it is ultimately an overrated film that has a lot of slow spots and overemphasizes style over substance. As a musical, its musical performances are not even in the same league as those of yesteryear, so to call it a throwback is insulting to the old musical spectacles of the past, not because the music is bad, but because it is performed so flatly. That said, the film still looks and sounds wonderful and it truly did deserve its win for Best Cinematography, and that shows absolutely in this 4K Ultra HD release from Lionsgate.
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