La La Land
Despite its artistic virtues, the limp narrative of Damien Chazelle's modern musical just won't leave audiences as jazzed as they were with Whiplash
La La Land is quite unlike anything that has been released in recent years and whether that is for better or worse is difficult to say. However, when a film’s opening scene takes three minutes and 48 seconds of song to establish that it is a ‘sunny day’ you generally know what you are getting yourself in for.
Directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) and starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, La La Land is, at its most basic, a rambunctious story of love and chasing one’s dreams. It is also about the acceptance of one day having to ‘grow up’.
Set in a perpetually sun-soaked Los Angeles, Chazelle’s latest film is the account of two people down-on-their-luck but trying to make it big. Mia (Stone) is an on-studio barista in Hollywood and aspiring actress, Sebastian (Gosling) is a jazz pianist who wants to one day run his own jazz club.
The two meet when, following an initially aggressive encounter on a traffic-clogged freeway on her way to an audition, Mia stumbles upon Sebastian playing piano for tips in a local restaurant. Fed up with reciting 'Jingle Bells' to disinterested customers, he digresses into a beautiful solo which not only catches Mia’s attention but also gets him fired.
From there we follow their path from frosty acquaintances to a blossoming relationship in a somewhat clichéd rags-to-ritches story. Although beautifully scored courtesy of Justin Hurwitz and masterfully produced – the dynamic changes in light and sound are akin to a theatre production - La La Land is essentially a romantic comedy with a very simple storyline.
It is easy to see what Chazelle is trying to achieve with this film; as an attempt to modernise the musical it surely succeeds. Unfortunately it's a notion that's forced upon the audience’s eyes and ears at every given opportunity. Musical numbers are interrupted by ringing cellphones, several scenes play out like a giant mannequin challenge and everybody drives a Toyota Prius, all just to remind you that, yes, this is a modern day musical.
Ironically the film’s best musical sequences by far are the ones in which there is no singing at all but instead are simply instrumental, allowing Gosling and Stone’s skill and charm to shine through in pure unaffected cinema. It's easy to see why a scene where the two dance at the top of an empty hillside overlooking the city has become the billboard vision for the film. After a brief song the two break out into a brilliantly choreographed set-piece of foot tapping and arm swinging lit by the purplish-blue hues of twilight Los Angeles.
An empty planetarium provides the setting for a similarly toned routine, except this time set to a weightless interstellar backdrop forming easily the most beautiful and surreal sequence of the entire film. It's these scenes which best evoke the film’s title, in the sense of not only the city it's set but also being detached from reality. They also make for some of the best cinematic sequences seen of late, reassuring the audience that music can once again be the driving force of a film.
It is to the movie’s detriment, then, that the story arc is so rudimentary and risk-free, and in the second and third acts not much singing or dancing actually happens. After Sebastian makes it big – some might say sells out - with a ‘modern jazz’ band called The Messengers, his busy lifestyle drives Mia away from him. The two separate, with Mia eventually becoming a successfully married movie star and Gosling's character finally opening his dream club.
Of course, the two eventually end up meeting again by happenstance one day where they proclaim their unceasing love for one another, yet for reasons never made entirely clear they cannot ever be together as they're doomed to live out their lives in the discord of successful glee and romantic malaise.
This, together with the signposted, seasonal narrative split across winter, spring, summer, autumn and eventually winter again, smacks of something like 2009’s (500) Days of Summer, a ‘quirky’ rom-com veiled in avant-garde vogue. In this sense La La Land is a frustrating creature. Consummate in its values and artistic integrity, ticking all the right awards season boxes, yet diluted by its trite storyline and twee narrative devices.
La La Land shares many similarities to Chazelle's previous effort – rags-to-riches story, love and heartbreak, jazz music - but which falls far short of its predecessor’s intensity, vigour and, crucially, in its actors’ performances. When Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) was kicked out of the Shaffer Conservatory it was devastating, it meant something to both him and the viewer. When Mia’s one-woman show flops it lacks impact, because it hasn't been established in any way to merit the same level of response.
Could this be Chazelle’s very own Birdman? After years of directing exquisite but admittedly bleak films, its director Alejandro G. Iñárritu eventually won out with the altogether more lighthearted, comedic and gimmicky affair. La La Land might well be on the fast track to Best Picture, but the top Oscar has gone to much better stories. Stripped of all the song and dance, this simply doesn't have one.
La La Land is now on general release.