I saw La La Land twice.
The first time, it was with my entire family, and I was excited, to say the least. I was no stranger to writer and director Damien Chazelle. Not only is he a graduate of PHS, he also produced one of my favorite films from recent years: Whiplash, a high-octane thrill ride about an aspiring jazz drummer who is relentlessly pushed to his limits by a bullying and sadistic band leader. Beyond that, the whole idea of La La Land captivated me: an upbeat love story told through a modern musical, with original music and amazing dance routines. That had not been done in cinema since the days of Singing In the Rain. And with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, two of my favorite actors, in the lead roles, how could I not walk into the theater with goosebumps?
So, sitting in the Montgomery Cinema with my mom on the left, and my sister and dad on the right, the lights dimmed and La La Land began. From the start, with a beautifully-shot and dazzling opening musical sequence, to its climactic, heart-wrenching, and poignant finale, I was enthralled. The pacing, the cinematography, the music, the dancing, and the wit of the dialogue between the main characters, and everything in between culminated to create one of the most enjoyable movie experiences I’ve ever had.
To come out of that theater, and see in the weeks following that La La Land had received a record-breaking seven Golden Globe awards, 14 Oscar nominations, a Best Film of the Year award by the New York Critics Circle—and the high honor of being this year’s PHS annual prom theme—only validated its masterpiece status in my eyes.
As with any great movie, I immediately went to see it a second time. I was ready to fall in love with the movie all over again, to have the musical numbers and dance sequences blow me away once more, and be on the edge of my seat and on the verge of tears for the climactic finale. But none of that came. I kept waiting and waiting and waiting for that feeling of magic in my heart, but… nothing. Sure, throughout the movie there were flickers of magic and beauty, but nothing that conjured up the same emotions. I was upset—not at the movie, but rather at myself. Why could I not love La La Land the way I had that first time? What was missing?
As I reflected more on my reaction, I thought about other musicals that I loved, but mainly one in particular—West Side Story. I’ve seen this movie musical more times than I can count, and every time the credits roll, I can’t think about anything other than what I’ve just watched: I’m in an emotional state of shellshock.
Compared to West Side Story, La La Land felt cute to me. The second time through, it seemed shallow compared to the emotional depth of West Side Story. The comparison between the two may not be the best, as West Side Story is more of a tragedy; but it’s remarkable how many times West Side Story has left me speechless and how La La Land couldn’t even do it a second time.
For me, the entirety of La La Land felt like one beautifully-orchestrated and perfectly executed magic trick. But who wants to see the same magic trick twice? You know what’s going to happen, and there’s no real substance.
Just as I felt I was ready to pack it in and call it a day for my thoughts on La La Land, I couldn’t help but remember the final scene in the movie. It’s a ten-minute rollercoaster of emotions, captured in a world of magical realism with every song compiled into one epic melody being played in the background. Mia and Sebastian, our two main characters, end the movie with a poignant gaze that packages their journey perfectly. You walk out of the theater in a wonderstruck trance. If La La Land was really an emotionally underwhelming musical, how could it have ever made me feel that way?
And I realize that the answer might not be the glamorous be all and end all I was looking for. The weeks leading up to seeing La La Land for the first time were filled with anticipation as to what this new movie, by one of my favorite directors, could possibly hold in store. So, of course I was astonished by how fresh and unique it was. The second time, I hyped the movie up so much in my mind that there was no way it could deliver what it had the first time. And the truth is, La La Land is a great movie. Its plot can drag a little bit, especially in the middle, and feel a little cute and underwhelming. But ending it there does the plot a disservice: La La Land’s love story has extremely memorable moments and a lot to say about how ambition and love work in tandem and in conflict with each other. Besides, fantastic musicals don’t necessarily need awe-inspiring plots to succeed, since they’re usually backed up by spectacular musical sequences. La La Land is one of those musicals.
If I were you, I would go watch La La Land immediately. Enjoy one of 2016’s best movies. Then, after you’ve seen it a first time, take a break from it for a little while. Remember that it’s hard to recreate the wonder of experiencing a work of art for the first time.