La La Land
US (2016) Dir. Damien Chazelle
Having birthed a new generation of jazz fans through his impressive debut Whiplash (my top film of 2015) Damien Chazelle continues to espouse his love for jazz, this time within the context of breaking down another “uncool” barrier for modern film fans – the musical. A staple attraction during the 40’s and 50’s until it was usurped by rock ‘n’ roll, this genre has seen its image take a right bashing over the past few decades.
Chazelle appears to be willing to fly the flag for this maligned entertainment form with this homage-cum-modern take on the genre, fuelled, as is the tradition, by the simplest of storylines built around the quest for stardom. Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) is a barista and aspiring actress with a long list of failed auditions to her name. Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist forced to take conservative music jobs to pay his bills.
Having to walk home from a networking party when her car is towed away, Mia is seduced by the sounds of a jazz piano coming from a restaurant. She steps inside to listen only see the pianist, Sebastian, fired for not playing the agreed music. He rudely storms past Mia on his way out but a few months later, they meet again at a party where Sebastian is reluctantly playing in an 80’s cover band.
This time they get along a little better and enjoy each other’s company, eventually becoming cheerleaders for the other in their chosen careers – Mia’s acting and one-woman stage play she is writing, and Seb’s plan to open his own jazz bar to save it from extinction. Of course, they fall in love but the divergence in their successes threatens to drive a wedge between them.
Amidst this lovey-dovey melodrama are the musical numbers, rooted very much in the big band, swing style of the aforementioned classic era, driven by uplifting tempos and joyously evocative dance routines. Whilst far from being the next Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, Gosling and Stone move well enough to capture that nostalgic spirit of the classic for the older generation.
In choosing a bright vivid colour palette to emulate the ebullient splendour of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Chazelle is wearing his influences on his sleeve; he would have been daft not to if the idea behind this film to pay tribute to them. But this is where confusion arises as to what Chazelle’s intentions are: is he paying homage to the past masters or is he trying to win over the modern audiences?
For all its aesthetic leitmotifs and wistful joie de vivre of the musical numbers, this is very much a modern film for a modern audience, evident in the use of some profanity and the inherent cynicism of today’s film industry, while the presentation which is rife with single take shots captured by busy crane cameras, played out in front of green screen backgrounds for that extra sprinkle of fantasy.
The film’s opening, a vibrant and energetic five minute musical number set on motorway brought to a standstill is a stunning single take exercise that not only allows Chazelle to set out his stall from the onset, but also pays tribute to the sheer scale of hard work that went into the choreography, planning and talent of the performers that goes unnoticed to the audiences as we indulge in the end result onscreen.
But, with Seb being a clear throwback and Mia a millennial (albeit one obsessed with classic Hollywood) there is a clash of cultures that switches between appeasing the younger audience one minute and the older audience the next. This is none more evident than in the latter half when the musical numbers temporarily disappear to allow the melodrama to unfold, this lull in energy bringing with it a sobering and numbing tonal shift.
It is unfair to criticise Chazelle for trying to bring these two worlds together but, for this writer at least, the film is at its strongest when it goes the full Fred and Ginger. Buttressed by catchy and infectious songs and tunes, quirky choreography that doesn’t overstretch the moderately skilled stars and the cute reference points in the routines the uplifting sense of escapism enjoyed by the characters permeates through the screen to the audience.
Elsewhere it is down to the main leads to ensnare the modern audience which seems to have done the trick, but they may not completely resonate with the older viewer who may prefer their musicals a little more chaste. If I’m being frank, neither Mia or Seb are particularly likeable at first and I found it hard to warm to them but their individual and collective passion for their crafts is eventually endearing enough to make the bittersweet denouement work.
If Ryan Gosling isn’t a studied pianist then kudos to him for his incredible miming skills as Chazelle relies too much on single takes for any edits for a second pair of hands to take the screen. Acting wise I found him a tad one-dimensional but he at least looked the part of Seb.
Emma Stone is another one who does nothing for me but was able to make Mia enough of a believable girl next door to make her casting worthwhile. Physically she reminds me of TV comedy creation Philomena Cunk but not as funny. It would be churlish to critique the singing and dancing skills of Stone and Gosling, so instead they get a tip of the hat for their earnest efforts.
Bottom line: I didn’t hate La La Land – it’s enjoyable and frothy entertainment for most part if you can ignore the hype – but I didn’t find that one hook or tangible connection to make it feel special and worthy of the overwhelming praise it has received either.
It serves its purpose as a glossy tribute to the halcyon days of the Hollywood musical and if it inspires a renaissance of the genre then more power to it.
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black