From writer / director Damien Chazelle (the man behind the superb ‘Whiplash’) comes La La Land. An unashamedly nostalgic homage to a bygone Hollywood age where overblown musicals ruled the roost.
Jazz pianist purist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and wannabe actress Mia (Emma Stone) both live in Los Angeles. The town that is both the focal point and black hole of many a dreamer. They are both stubbornly chasing their dreams (to open a jazz club, and to land a role – any role – respectively) to a backdrop of general indifference. No one wants to listen to classic jazz anymore, and casting directors are more concerned about taking lunch orders than watching Mia’s performances. So far, so similar.
But the movie opens with a bold and striking statement of intent that immediately sets the tone of what is to come. Seemingly shot in one take (although hiding a few sneaky edits) a traffic jam on a busy L.A. freeway slowly morphs into one of the large scale song and dance numbers you don’t get in cinema any more. At least not until The Greatest Showman came out!
Primary colours swirl in warm summer dresses whilst happy clappy people throng through the parked cars in joy, praising the scorching blue Californian sky. The movie continues in this happy go lucky vein for most of the first Act. As a result, Mia and her chirpy roommates burst into song at the drop of a hat.
However, unlike The Greatest Showman, La La Land suffers from several flaws throughout. Firstly: songs. There are little to no stand out songs that will have you singing and toe tapping. Instead, a general smear of jazzy Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers permeates throughout. Pleasant enough but not memorable. Second, Gosling and Stone’s immediate attraction (albeit delayed when the ‘meet cute’ goes awry several times over) feed into the movie’s glossy sheen. It works fine when things are tap dancing in front of the stars but falls down when arbitrary conflict is thrown into the mix.
Sebastian reluctantly takes a well paying and steady job that requires him to play ‘modern’ jazz (alongside cool cucumber John Legend, no less) so that he can support Mia’s developing one woman show. But whereas another movie would show how these unspoken compromises lead to snippy frustrations that culminate in a clash, La La Land throws all its conflict into one short sharp scene just so that we can have some stakes for Act 3. Oddly enough, the attempts at reality do a movie so focused on image no favours.
Regardless, there is no denying that the cinematography and sheer delight in revelling in nostalgia are a pleasure to watch. An unbroken six minute shot of Stone and Gosling singing and dancing to a backdrop of the L.A. skyline while streetlights shine like Hollywood stars should warm the most cynical of hearts. And if you didn’t get that symbolism then once the pair go to a planetarium they literally ascend into a dreamlike cloud of stars to twirl the date away. It’s this light-hearted cap doffing to traditionalism that stand out all the more for being virtually dead these days.
As an exercise in movie making La La Land is indeed laudable. But overall the characters let it down. During one telling dinner scene where Mia is with her current boyfriend (only introduced in the scene before hand) the camera is focused on only her, or being her eyes as she scans her company. And then she walks away, presumably abandoning the boyfriend who never even got the grace of a characteristic. Any other characters are only ever framed in the background or sides from her or Gosling.
The movie is only interested in these two. To the point where at several points of the film the lighting literally fades to black around either one of them, leaving them enshrined in spotlight. Yet Stone does much of the emotional heavy lifting to keep the audience’s engagement. Gosling has only two outbursts in the whole film that are so brief that you’d blink and miss them. Wry and fun to watch, he may be. Emotionally engaging? Not at all. Their love story is so fixed in the stars that the lack of actual connection between the leads is treated as moot.
La La Land was lauded by critics with so much praise on release perhaps due to nostalgia. But also perhaps because it’s a film set in Hollywood, about Hollywood, for Hollywood. Whilst none of the songs stand out as take away hits, the score is of a gloriously bygone era and the general sense of carefree fun is nice to sink into.
But, I would tell La La Land to just own itself. Accept that these people are lacking in real depth and take us on a merry tap dancing ride instead of skirting around attempts at flimsy ‘Hollywood is flaky’ messages. I loved Chazelle’s vision and direction, but once the credits rolled all La La Land did was make me want to watch Whiplash again.
Words by Michael Record