Have you ever felt like a teenage disaster?
Have you ever been an actor or musician living in Los Angeles?
There is much more nuance to that question but at its heart, that’s the big, bold difference between 2016’s notable musical offerings, Sing Street and La La Land. Both are able to exhibit the magic nature of music and art and sacrifice but only one is able to find the universal human connection that makes it all worth while.
FULL SPOILERS FOR BOTH FILMS AHEAD!
In Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash, La La Land strikes a perfect balance between classic hollywood musical and millennial love story. Two dreamers find each other amidst the sea of rejected souls also reaching for the same heights in Los Angeles. Ryan Gosling’s Seb represents the obsessively detail-driven artist who falls in love with the actress who has run the gamut of Hollywood audition hell in Emma Stone’s Mia. The two delve into each other as they navigate the most uncertain and vulnerable periods in their lives. What works at first in compromise winds up tearing the two apart and they willfully go their separate ways, achieving their dreams in the time after.
If what described above sounds like an intriguing story about love and loss and sacrifice, you wouldn’t be wrong, except La La Land fails to provide the necessary stakes in order to create the proper emotional reality.
John Carney’s Sing Street follows Conor, a boy forced to attend a rough religious school because his parents’ impending divorce requires a great deal of financial sacrifice. Set in 1980s Ireland against the backdrop of the incoming wave of MTV rock n roll, Conor goes after the pretty girl in his neighborhood the only logical way he knows how: start a rock band. With the guidance of his wise, yet constant failure of a brother, Brendan, Conor assembles his band and records original music (because cover bands be damned) all in the efforts toward this one girl. In the process of true coming-of-age greatness, his band discovers that steppin’ out (pun intended) and unabashedly being whatever it is that you are is a lesson that will outlive any difficulty.
From a pure surface level, La La Land asks more of its audience in its attempt to relate its story to every filmgoer. Ninety percent of its audience isn’t going to be a musician/actress/etc with a deep connection to Los Angeles or classic Hollywood. Ninety percent of Sing Street‘s audience also aren’t going to be teenagers growing up in poor Ireland but the difference comes with the stakes each character has in each film. La La Land presents a very privileged take on sacrifice where, if you don’t succeed, you get to go home to a loving family home in Nevada. I understand that Mia’s reached her breaking point after giving it her all and I’m not faulting the movie for the story it decided to tell. It did, however, decide to tell a story that has a built-in safety net for its characters.
Being an impressionable teenager where every choice outside the box invites ridicule and, quite often, physical abuse inherently means to not have a safety net. When Conor tells a beautiful and interesting girl that he has a band that doesn’t actually exist and even casts her in their music video shoot for a song that hasn’t been written, it is a complete leap of faith that could backfire and hurt worse than what any casting director might tell you through a mouthful of kale and quinoa salad at an audition.
Sing Street provides a sense of raw emotion and feeling as opposed to La La Land‘s manicured take on sacrifice. But wait– both films are actually quite lovely in their own right! La La Land gets a lot right when it comes to transmitting old Hollywood musical deliciousness to a modern format and the songs themselves are all layered ear worms we could hum for days. Sing Street might appeal more to a person who is completely unaware they’re watching a musical and would be baffled to find out that actually just watched one when the credits rolled. The songs in Sing Street may be even more catchy than La La Land’s which is a ridiculous complement in its own right.
I’m not surprised La La Land is the arguable favorite to win the top honors at the Oscars (Hollywood loves giving awards to such “insider” movies) but I’m most definitely underwhelmed.
For me it comes down to which stirs the most emotion and gives me the most drive to do something great when I leave the theater. Both movies no doubt have those motivations on their minds. As a person living in Los Angeles and wanting to be everything that La La Land presents as an option, I recognized everything I saw on screen but wasn’t moved to think any differently or be any braver in the end. Sing Street reminded me what it is like to go out on a limb, let it break and hit every branch on the way down but hit those branches back equally as I go.
Check out a two minute, mini-review of La La Land brought to you by the UnPOP Podcast hosts on SpareMin.