La La Land
It seems like a long time since I watched Whiplash, months after it had already won all of the awards it would win. I had no idea who Damien Chazelle was at the time, even though I had watched and enjoyed another project of his, Grand Piano (he was the writer), not too long before then. While his filmography is not all that extensive, he is two for two with me, and that counts for a lot as far as I’m concerned. Now he’s turning back to music-based films (and jazz) with his ode to a classic era of Hollywood musicals melding with a modern setting. La La Land already seems set to sweep awards season (which counts for increasingly little with me) but is it the kind of Hail, Caesar!-esque homage to delight the senses? Or is it another example of Hollywood being up so far up its own ass that it can’t tell when it’s gone too far with the nostalgia?
When frustrated jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) meet each other, they begin a romantic love affair, propped up by their efforts to elevate the others’ dreams in the cutthroat world of LA entertainment. But when success comes, the price may be the very relationship that has let them achieve that success.
This is a film that is largely about the marked difference between dreams and reality, between fantasy and cynicism, between the world that we live in and the world that we wish to live in. Its cipher is the story of Sebastian and Mia and the way that their love affair unfolds: both in terms of the difficult path they have balancing their own relationship and their pursuit of their respective ambitions, and in the actual musical sequences, where Hollywood fantasy takes over.
And, unfortunately, I just could not engage, at least not to the extent that Damien Chazelle would have wanted me to. La La Land is a triumph in many respects but, in my eyes, falls down at several crucial junctures. Not least of those is the simple fact that, in drawing out his dichotomy, Chazelle can’t let La La Land settle into one satisfying mode.
Judging from the promotional material, the overall score and that snazzy opening number, it’s a musical, but it isn’t really. Yes, characters sing their feelings on occasion, but La La Land is really only dipping its toes in the ocean of the musical genre, taking up the medium whenever it is most convenient for forwarding the plot – when complicated inter-person scripting is too difficult – and abandoning it just as quickly when there is no need for it all. As noted by many others, the musical aspect of La La Land just stops for a huge portion of the movies second act, only really coming back into play as we head towards the finale: there’s some partial false advertising going on here, from a film that wants to be seen as both a musical homage and a serious drama, without the common drawbacks of both genres.
And as a love story, La La Land really isn’t anything remarkable. The tale of Seb and Mia trips along, passing over familiar terrain at the expected points. Meeting cute, bickering before the first date, a gradual coming together, a spring period, problems, worse problems, you’ve seen this before a thousand times and you’ll see it again a thousand more. What should elevate this common story is the associated elements, not least the musical parts, and while the music of La La Land is excellent, as mentioned it passes over quickly.
Without the musical aspect to uplift the plot, we’re left with Chazelle’s resorts to fantasy, the tap dancing, the flying through the stars, the lengthy montages of events that never were and never will be. And while this is all well and good, it’s only to a point, as Chazelle seems to not quite know what he wants to go for: to depict the fuzzy romantic phase of relationships in magical terms, or to mock the audiences expectations.
The epitome of this is undoubtedly the manner in which the film ends, in an extended epilogue sequence that was already unnecessary before Chazelle really gets into it, blending reality and fantasy to the greatest extent so far. I’m not entirely sure what he was going for, if he didn’t mean to taunt the audience by showing them the dream that could never exist, couching it in such exaggerated terms that you would feel silly for even expecting it a little. I found the ending downbeat and off-putting, a cap on a largely unfulfilling experience, redeemed only by a few elements.
Stone is dazzling as Mia: it’s something when you find yourself enraptured by an audition scene that is apparently supposed to be a disaster for the character. Channelling the glamourous girls of Hollywood era past – the O’Hara’s, the Hepburn’s, the Bacall’s – she gives us Mia as a downtrodden but ever feisty young woman, confident in her interactions with Sebastian and when the time comes to sing. Stone has been consistently good in everything I have had the fortunate to see her in: the problem here is that the character is no good (see below).
Beside her, Gosling isn’t of quite the same quality, save in stretches where he is passionately describing the fate of classic jazz, and his singing voice sounded a bit more modified to me whenever he had the chance air his pipes. As a leading man he’s perfectly fine, just nothing too astounding: I’ve found that’s becoming my standard appraisal of Gosling who maybe looks the part more than he has the genuine talent for the part. In terms of supporting cast, La La Land doesn’t really have one and I mean that sincerely: there isn’t a single character elsewhere in the story I could name, only describe: John Legend’s band leader, Seb’s sister, Mia’s abrasive boss. This is a musical for two.
Chazelle isn’t the most experienced director at the feature level, but he has chops with Whiplash, and La La Land, with Linus Sandgren in the cinematographer chair, is a great looking production. Serving as a tribute to films gone by it brings to mind the loving scope and endearing acclaim of Hail, Caesar!, while also succeeding in its own right, crafting a succession of fun, enjoyable musical sequences, often in faux-one shot style, in line with Justin Hurwitz’ score and Chazelle’s music.
“Another Day Of Sun”, a rip-roaring ensemble piece on a crowded LA freeway opens the scene with coordinated singing and dancing worthy of the very best examples of the genre, before we’re moving rapidly: “Someone In The Crowd” balances frenetic optimism with Mia’s private doubts, “City Of Stars” serves nicely as a classy love theme, “Start A Fire” gives John Legend a scene-stealing opportunity and Stone’s “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is simply but effectively framed. At all times, Chazelle demonstrates his skill and his vision, knowing when to get extravagant, and knowing when to keep things grounded and simple. Notwithstanding JK Simmons’ extended cameo – he might actually be playing Terence Fletcher in the form of the restaurant owner who demands Seb play Christmas jingles instead of actual jazz – La La Land lacks the intensity and claustrophobia that marked the direction of Whiplash, and is better for it.
Beyond all that, the central problem is those two central characters. Gosling’s Seb is frequently flat but far more interesting than Stone’s better played Mia, an opinion I base largely around one dinner scene at the bottom of the second act, the details of which can probably be considered a spoiler, so read the following three paragraphs if you dare.
It’s the second act split scene, where the tensions between the two leads boil over: Mia essentially accuses Seb of being a sell-out (though avoids using that direct term) for being part of a successful band instead of pursuing his own beloved version of jazz. Seb retorts that Mia seemed to like him more when he was not only a financial basket-case but lower than her in the process. And I sat in my seat and thought “Yup, that seems about right”.
Because Mia really does just turn on Seb, and for the crime of being part of a dynamic band playing music that people like. Yeah, it isn’t quite the jazz he (and she) fell in love with, but that doesn’t excuse her petty snobbish reaction to it, or to the fact that Seb is compromising a little on his pure notions of the genre in order to gain the financial success necessary to make his other dream come true. Seb is the character evolving, growing up, changing, while Mia is the one stuck in a self-pitying rut. The film compounds this by treating Seb as the bad guy in that moment, giving up on his dreams (only he isn’t) and later having him miss Mia’s one-woman show (which he never criticises, unlike her on his work).
But it’s Mia who fails to support Seb even though much of the reason he joins up with “The Messengers” is because of her. And it’s Mia who gives up on her dream after overhearing a solitary bit of nasty criticism. And it’s Seb who travels across state lines to convince her to come back and give it one more shot and it’s Seb who supports her in that act. And it’s Seb who tells her to go off to Paris, alone, to pursue her dream without him. In the last third of La La Land, Mia came off, to me, as a very nasty person that we are apparently supposed to sympathise with, because she is a committed “dreamer” (only she isn’t) and Seb is not.
Perhaps this sort of thing gets to me because it seems aimed at me like an insult. I’m one of those people who had a “dream” (a romanticized name for a fervently held ambition), that they subsequently decided wasn’t wise, especially in a financial sense, to follow. To elaborate would risk turning this review into a whinge, but I’ve taken the hand that life has dealt me and moved onto a different path, one that has its difficulties and disappointments, but that I am quite happy with at the present time. That makes it somewhat tiresome to see films of this nature, which seem to look down on people like me as some kind of despairing unfulfilled lot who are only faking satisfaction with their lives, not like “the dreamers” that the film is dedicated to. In a way that reminded me greatly of Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, Chazelle’s film feeling like it sitting in judgement as much as it is trying to inspire.
I just couldn’t fall as effortlessly in love with La La Land as so many others – from audience members, to critics, to the award committees – have apparently been able to do with ease. I can appreciate the production details that tantalize and sparkle. I can appreciate the music, when Chazelle sees fit for his film to be a musical. I can appreciate parts of the script, Stone’s performance and the giddy tribute to a by-gone era that La La Land largely is. But at its core it has a by-the-numbers love affair plot, a bland leading man performance and an ending that is rather off-putting. Maybe Chazelle will direct another jazz-themed film and make it a trilogy: hopefully next time it will be something as substantial as Whiplash, and not as wishy-washy and unsatisfying as this. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Summit Entertainment).