As we should all know by now, this is the film to watch out for at the Oscars: it has already swept up every award in its path, including a record haul at the Golden Globes. Audiences worldwide have been enchanted. Its magic – strictly in box office terms, of course – has calmed the nerves of Hollywood studio execs who currently have roughly twenty musicals in pre-, mid- or post-production. Twenty!
I’m pleased by this. We need more musicals in the world – they’re a great recruiting ground for young film buffs. They train people to realise that most films are not about duplicating life at all, but about imagining a better and more magical life, in which people can burst into song for no good reason – and why not? Realism be damned – in the dark of the cinema, we want to be transported ‘Over the Rainbow’.
Director Damien Chazelle realises this, and begins his film with a firm middle finger up to the realists of the world. It is a sequence in which hundreds of drivers in a traffic jam suddenly get out and start dancing on the roofs of their cars. It contains all of the joyful absurdity of, say, Gene Kelly singin’ in the rain. The tedium of daily life is transcended by the magic of film and music, working in tandem: ‘Welcome to La La Land!’
Or should it be L.A. L.A. Land? That fame-hungry city is the ‘real’ setting of this film. Magic/reality are pitted against each other in the title as they are everywhere else here.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play an aspiring jazz pianist and an aspiring actress respectively, two clichéd dreamers whom we nevertheless will to succeed. That is because, as their paths keep on crossing, they bring out the sweetness in each other as romance gives fire to their unrealised ambitions. They believe in each other, so we come to believe in them.
The pair of actors do have a certain chemistry, as seen before in Crazy, Stupid, Love and (let’s agree to forget) Gangster Squad. I believe their attraction as an onscreen couple comes from a) Stone being the smarter, funnier, and more assertive one, in a reversal of Hollywood gender norms; and b) Gosling being kind enough to be content with her domination, his masculinity so assured that he doesn’t feel the need to compete. Their ease with each other is non-combative and a satisfying model of romance to feast our eyes upon.
Which isn’t to say that their relationship, or La La Land itself, will always be an easy, relaxed ride. The second half delves into dark territory, heavily influenced by the Jacques Demy classics The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort as it explores the strain of life’s responsibilities upon the fairy-tale dreams of Love. The title keeps on asking us: La La Land or L.A. L.A. Land?
Damien Chazelle is particularly alert to the struggles of young artists to achieve deserved success (see also Whiplash), which seems to stem from frustrations early on in his own career.
But he has become so obsessed with this theme that in La La Land he neglects the most important aspect of all: the music. Justin Hurwitz’s score is allowed to be flawed and unmemorable. And I say that after having listened to the soundtrack on and off for a week. This is a severe disappointment in a film explicitly modelled on the great Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and 50s, with their bevy of extraordinary songwriters (Gershwin! Porter! Berlin! Rodgers!). Because how are we supposed to fly off to La La Land when the songs are rooted in mediocrity?
Earlier today I caught myself humming a tune from the film. Only a moment later I realised that it was ‘Take on Me’. That was what had stuck in my mind. Oh dear.
When dealing with the basic elements of film, Chazelle is on fine form: the cameras swoop gracefully to capture the smooth dance routines, all of the costumes and set designs are garishly colourful and impressive, and the editing is slick and witty. But his failure to attach it all to a worthy soundtrack shows a lack of understanding of the musical form, which is fatal when your film happens to be a pastiche of that genre.
So let’s just say that as a film-lover, I’m impressed. But as a music-lover, I’m disappointed.