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May 20th 2017

I have an odd relationship with the film La La Land. It began back in the middle of 2015, when I was looking to see what films Emma Stone had coming up - she has been my favourite actress for a while, and every now and again I check IMDb to see what's on the horizon, for her as well as for a few others - and saw a film called 'La La Land' was in pre-production. Actually, when I first came across it I'm not entirely sure it wasn't down as 'Untitled Emma Stone project', although I might be getting that confused with something else.
There wasn't anything much to go on at that point, but I kept checking - as well as seeing when it had a Wikipedia page - and became more excited when I discovered that Ryan Gosling was also in the film. He & Emma Stone had appeared together twice before, and I'd loved both films: Crazy, Stupid, Love was one of my favourite films of 2011 (5 Coddie nominations), and - perhaps uniquely among all cinema-goers - Gangster Squad was of my favourite films of 2013 (4 Coddie nominations, including a Best Supporting Actor win for Gosling). However, even though I was excited I was still trying to keep my hopes in check, as I'd been burned before: not long before, Aloha had sounded like a dream ticket (Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bradley Cooper) but had turned out to be truly awful.
The more I heard about the project, though, the better it sounded: Damien Chazelle was due to direct, and while his name had been attached from the start, it took some time before I made the connection to Whiplash, his previous directorial work and my favourite film of 2015 (6 Coddie nominations, including two wins). The synopsis - an aspiring actress and an aspiring musician meet in L.A. - didn't give much to go on, and I'm not sure I even knew it was a musical at that point, but as we entered 2016 it was high up on my list of anticipated films. Quite literally: I had a spreadsheet of the films I was looking forward to, and their release dates. No one else seemed to have heard of it, though.
As time wore on, I wondered why nothing had been heard of this film: after all, the release date was supposed to be mid-July, and all we had seen so far was a thumbnail of the two stars dancing with each other. No other posters, no trailers, no press. What was going on? Was this going to sink without a trace? And then, disheartingly, the movie got pushed back to December. Nothing wrong with that per se, of course - in fact, a Christmas release date can be a sign of confidence from the studio - but pushing a film's release back, so close to when it was supposed to come out, usually means that's something's gone horribly wrong and desperate re-shoots are needed. I prepared myself for disappointment.
And then the reviews started coming in, well in advance of the USA release date (December) let alone the UK one (January), because the film showed at a few festivals throughout the autumn - and they were uproarious in their praise. La La Land was indisputably a triumph. My fears were gone, and now I was just impatient to be able to see the thing: having waited for so long, it was frustrating to be at the back of the queue, particularly when awards season rolled around and the film kept going from strength to strength.

Finally, I got to see La La Land at the cinema - at an advance screening, in fact, that my friend Jenny had spotted - and, well, my feelings were mixed. You may have heard my thoughts on my podcast at the time. Essentially, I loved the majority of the film - the chemistry between Gosling and Stone was better than it had ever been, the songs were fantastic, the whole thing was beautifully shot - but (and here are the spoilers) the couple didn't end up together. Instead, they chose to pursue their dreams of jazz and acting. I'd been sold on a story of hope and romance; the feel-good movie of the year; a classic love story: instead I'd been given some kind of let's-advance-with-our-careers story. The final montage, in which the story of the film was replayed as a theatrically imagined what-could-have-been where the two did end up together, served only to rub salt into the wound. I genuinely think I've never left a cinema as dejected as I was that day.
I realise that this is a sign of the success of the film, in some ways. The fact that I cared about the fate of the characters meant that they had done a stellar job - I mean, it didn't bother me when Vince Vaughan & Jennifer Aniston didn't end up together in The Break-Up, for example - but I still felt cheated. It wasn't like Casablanca, say, which is a superb film and which has very good reason for the leading couple not to end up together. It just felt that we'd been given a wonderful love story, and it had been snatched away from us for... what? Career prospects? It must ring true for some people - many people, I guess - but to me the idea of telling someone you'll always love them, but you're never going to see them again because your jobs will take you to different cities, is utterly incomprehensible.
So, when people asked me what I thought of the film, I could only say that I was conflicted but that it was mostly wonderful. And when the La La Land backlash crept around - having been so universally praised, it was inevitable - I thought it was a bit silly, but didn't feel as strongly as I might have done otherwise. The complaints seemed to revolve around two points: firstly, that Ryan Gosling wasn't black; and secondly that the two leads couldn't sing. This latter point was very fair: while they were both very competent (the comment in the Sunday Times that they were "tone-deaf" was entirely unjustified), it has to be said that their voices, in particular Emma Stone's, were pretty weak. That was unfortunate, but their acting - and chemistry - more than made up for it.
On Oscar night I was still rooting for La La Land, but it felt a bit odd: a film that I had looked forward to for at least 18 months, and had genuinely enjoyed, but now had mixed feelings about. Perhaps, too, the fact that it had received widespread acclaim made it a little less personal than when it had been an upcoming film that I, seemingly alone, was excited about. And, despite Emma Stone being a big favourite, I went into awards season thinking that Natalie Portman's performance in Jackie had actually been better. Anyways, Emma got the Oscar, and La La Land had that debacle with Moonlight (as an aside, I haven't seen Moonlight but I thought it would win after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy from 2016; then when La La Land's mountain of nominations came in I changed my mind, but clearly either Moonlight truly is excellent or the backlash hit at just the wrong time).
This week La La Land came out on DVD, and I watched it for a second time. And I do love it. Simon had told me that it was better a second time, when you know that the couple won't end up together, and I absolutely agree: rather than hoping for a happy ending, I was more able to understand what Damien Chazelle was going for: the characters' optimism is just a little too eager; their happiness a little too idealised. And while a film with a choreographed dance number in L.A. traffic can hardly be said to be realistic, the idea that sacrifices have to be made on the route to success is understandable. More than this, though, on a second viewing I realised just how iconic this film is: I believe it will be remembered and treasured long after Moonlight is completely forgotten (other than as being the film that wasn't La La Land).
Oh, and Emma Stone really is excellent. Natalie Portman, watch your back.

what am I listening to?
Long Road Out of Eden - Eagles
what am I reading?
Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe
what am I watching?
Did You Hear About the Morgans?
January 2017
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March 2017
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May 2017

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