Damien Chazelle, of Whiplash fame, returns with another pop at jazz with La La Land. This time, however, romance is the main theme of the day; can it deliver? Lee and Lawrence reviews.
One of La La Land’s more tenable real estate grabs, for audiences of 2017 at least, is in its linking of nostalgia as an off-shoot or subcategory of romance; for what is nostalgia but an idealised imagining of an imperfect emotional idea? How romantic, and so credit where credit is due, the theming scores big. Hollywood is romanticised reality and the “Golden/Late Golden Age” era imagery evokes that with sentimentality; jazz is an oft romanticised music form, especially the traditional/New Orleans stuff, and while most of the stuff in the soundtrack is really Swing Jazz and big orchestral off-brand movie pop, it all evokes a certain time and place and set of ideals; dancing is romanticised walking, etc, etc. Society’s collective nostalgia recalls these images and sounds and ideas, so it makes sense that our somewhat world-weary world will find hope in this modern musical.
Better still (for those actually interested in critiquing film as a work or intention of art, at least), it all ties together to form one neat romantic bundle, and an actual romance-romance forms the heart of the story, so that makes sense; jerky boy meets spirited, unshakeable girl and those two forces try to work out what love looks like in the real world. Elevated by towering musical numbers and fairy dream segments, spontaneous song collaborations and dance-offs, this is where La La Land shines. The musical elements form meta-commentary on the film’s world itself, standing in for any act too great to be shown in real terms, yet the film is ostensibly a realist’s story of a romance in try-hard Los Angeles, and here the movie makes a misstep.
In a film with such well-established potential to leap from the trivialities of real relationship drama, La La Land instead doubles down on the hardships of love in an unfeeling place where career progress equals validation and easy choices aren’t easy or obvious. It becomes something of a cautionary tale, one albeit with a fascinating finale that doubles down on nostalgia as a theme to explore the potential romance has to explore one’s missed opportunities even when they are firmly missed, but a cautionary tale it remains due to the staggering amount of lows we sit through and, unfortunately, it’s not one with a lot of warranted credence behind it.
Espousing sentimentality and nostalgia to propagate forward-thinking and realism works, it’s useful for imparting critical thinking to those who would not ordinarily be exposed to it, but only if you stick to it and actually say something worth saying. For example: why press jazz on an audience and characters through exposition and exposure as a music choice for the open-minded, but draw a line at contemporary jazz due to perceived lack of soul? Wouldn’t the romance of jazz in general be enough? Another: why equate realism with negativism? Why not have the characters realise their strength in collaboration and present that as your resolve if you’re just going to end them in just-marginally-below-fantasy lifestyles anyway? Why settle for bittersweet with your fantasy when you can just go fantasy?
This isn’t helped when the writing also dips into cynicism and short-sightedness too often to truly be either uplifting or benefit from the concept it has carved for itself, taking pop-shots at work-a-day jobs, the falsity of acting as a career and the fruitlessness of unfettered ambition, all to promote a resolve that doesn’t necessarily feel earned or warranted, promoting romance as the true lifestyle worth saving yet doing so while riding the idea that only certain shades of romance are worthy. This contradictory nature creates a full deficiency in the movie as it essentially tries to exploit its romance-pie and eat it too.
And so, the finished piece ultimately comes across as an aggravatingly shallow experience, one that doesn’t know what it wants to say but surely knows what it wants to look like, and who’s really going to complain there? The aesthetic elements are superb, the dancing and singing and acting and little character moments all build to an unshakeable base that makes it hard to stop watching even when the voice in your head quietly hates every characters as individuals and just wishes the movie would make good on its promise and create some honest-to-goodness, sincere, straight-played romance. If ever there were a movie that could get away with it, here was the movie. Instead, we dabble but never buy into romance wholesale, flirting with the possibilities but never showing us how it can be achieved, the only worthwhile thing this cautionary tale could tell us.
Still, mass audiences will eat it up, at least in the initial run before it loses its charm completely in the coming times. It’s a sappy but believable romance, completely and utterly sold by its stars and their undeniable chemistry, and the window dressing is as fine as the Hollywood standards that came before it. But it is just dressing; nostalgia is alluring like that, but it’s fleeting next to the purity of romance itself.
[Lee’s review was originally published 18/01/2017]
The universe in which musicals take place must be a peculiar place indeed, for every aspirational putz who dreams of opening a pie shop there’s an entire city block effectively shut down for five minutes while the perfectly choreographed dance number ensues. How does anybody get anything done? Imagine the workflow disruptions! How are the wars fought, I wonder? There’s a movie I’d pay to see. Call me, Hollywood.
So, enter stage-left La La Land, the return of the great American musical, in the vein of such classics as Singin’ in the Rain and The Music Man. Our lead roles are filled by Emma Stone and professional dreamboat Ryan Gosling, both recently confirmed triple threats, watch out! They play Mia and Sebastian; Mia is a struggling actress making ends meet as a barista, Sebastian is a down-on-his-luck jazz musician who aspires to open his own jazz club, but whose overbearing passion and snobbishness prevents him from holding down a steady job. Spoiler warning: they fall in love. Their dynamic works well and you generally like them both, but their relationship blossoms just a little too quickly to avoid feeling tropey, especially considering their rocky start.
It’s a throwback in many ways, even the plot follows that classic American Dream arc, an aging concept the presence of which in this modern setting is almost but not quite distracting. Yet they do endeavour to chip away at it, with personal compromises being made, a troubled work-life balance and both main leads not getting absolutely everything that they want (illustrated quite nicely by an excellent “what-if” final sequence), but they still achieve their dreams, and become wealthy and famous on top of it. The ending goes somewhere impressively left-field in this regard, and was the difference between a good movie and a great one as far as I was concerned. Is it possible to be gently-abrupt? It feels as though that’s what’s been accomplished here.
If my quibbling over unimportant thematic devices gives you the impression that I disliked this film, fear not. The characters are likable and well-acted, the camerawork is on-point, and the music and choreography is marvellous (as it damned better be). The complete unironic embrace of the romantic gives it an earnest charm that’s hard to dislike, and visually it’s a treat. Multicolour clothes dance to backgrounds so picturesque that I’m still uncertain if they’re cleverly hidden painted backdrops or not. Little mannerisms in how the characters move and react add tremendous character, and Gosling has it down to a science. Stone too, perhaps; my eyes were mostly on Ryan and his dreamy, gentle eyes. Hmm? He’s very talented, okay? That’s all! No need to get weird about it. Get off my back. Jesus!
In any case, it should go without saying it’ll clean up at the Oscars; it’s certainly seized all the Golden Globes that weren’t nailed down. It’s got enough character to rise above “blatant pandering” but it’s exactly the kind of nostalgia-bait the academy would just eat up. It’s really the kind of film you can bring just about anyone to and they’ll have a good time. What a rarity it is, to see a movie and think “Wasn’t that nice?” and mean it, free of twee or grasping attempts to play on your heartstrings. High marks all round.
Just a shame there’s no award category for “Film title most likely to confuse a Frenchman.”