A trip to La La Land – Glass reviews the newly released musical

ARRIVING in cinemas cresting a tidal wave of hype, La La Land promises to be the feel-good musical balm to soothe audiences rattled by 2016. Its massive anticipation rests both on director Damian Chazelle’s status as media-anointed wunderkind and the ostensible novelty of an original Hollywood musical produced in the 21st century. Having achieved with 2014’s Whiplash the unlikely feat of scoring a critical and commercial hit with a low-budget film about jazz, can Chazelle go one further and rescue the movie musical from the dustbin of history?

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as Sebastian and Mia, two twenty-something dreamers in Los Angeles, each determined to make it big in their respective fields of jazz and acting. The plot, such as it is, charts Sebastian and Mia’s star-crossed romance as they navigate the vicissitudes of their creative careers. Just as Andrew Neiman idolised jazz drummer Buddy Rich in Whiplash, Sebastian and Mia are in love with LA’s glittering past; the names of long-deceased Hollywood legends trip from their tongues, and vintage posters adorn their apartment walls.

For Sebastian, this adulation for the classics may prove to be a liability: resentful of new fashions in jazz, he holds himself to standards of purity that do little for his career prospects. Mia, meanwhile, is running the familiar treadmill of auditions that lead nowhere. It’s not a particularly heavyweight premise — but hey, great musicals have been constructed on flimsier plots. Still, after the riveting teacher-student relationship at the heart of Whiplash, one can’t help feeling it’s a step backwards for Chazelle in dramatic terms.

 

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Ryan Gosling stars as Sebastian in La La Land. Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

With the plot following a fairly pedestrian romantic rise and fall, the spotlight falls on the film’s musical dimension. As his first, low-budget feature Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench (2009) made clear, Chazelle is heavily influenced by the 1960s musicals of director Jacques Demy. Here, the spirit of Demy imbues the opening number ‘Another Day of Sun’, which sees disgruntled LA motorists leap from their vehicles to perform an elaborately choreographed, one-take dance routine that nods to the opening set piece of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967).

Classics of the French New Wave, Demoiselles and Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) were themselves affectionate tributes to the movie musical’s golden age of the 1950s. Crucially, however, Demy threw his own distinctive elements into the mix: a heightened colour scheme, the alternately joyous and melancholic music of Michel Legrand, and a generally eccentric French sensibility. Transcending mere pastiche, Demy’s musicals carved out their own quirky place in the movie musical cannon.

Conversely, you’d be hard-pressed to identify in La La Land any ingredients that Chazelle has added to the musical genre to update it, reinvent it, or otherwise make it his own. It seems Chazelle’s ambition is more modest — simply to create a convincing new product based on well-thumbed movie musical blueprints. So what are we left with is not even a ‘modern’ musical, in the way that West Side Story, with its presentation of inter-racial gang warfare, was bracingly modern in 1960. Instead, La La Land’s gaze is defiantly backward-looking, to Jacques Demy, to Gene Kelly, and to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The film promises not innovation, but getting back to the basics — in short, putting on a damn fine show.

LLL d 13 _2649.NEFRyan Gosling stars as Sebastian in LA LA LAND. Photograph: Dale Robinette

It’s this conservatism that exposes the awkward truth: on every count, La La Land falls short of the standards set by its illustrious predecessors. The melodies are not as memorable, the dialogue not as witty, as anything from the canon. Most glaringly, Ryan and Emma are not Fred and Ginger: they are actors with varying degrees of musical experience, not all-round ‘triple threats’ (acting, singing, dancing) in the Broadway tradition. The success of Hollywood movie musicals in the golden age lay largely with the obscene levels of raw talent they brought to the screen: whatever your tastes, you couldn’t quibble with Anne Miller’s tap dancing, or Frank Sinatra’s pipes, or the musical calibre of the MGM studio orchestra. Such certainties don’t apply to La La Land, and the quality of Gosling and Stone’s singing and dancing is very much an open question.

True, there are moments when everything comes close to falling into place. In the film’s most charming number, A Lovely Night, a stunning sunset provides the backdrop for a classic anti-romantic duet (‘This could never be / You’re not the type for me’). Justin Hurwitz’s orchestration really hits its stride and the chemistry starts to sizzle — then, where 60 years ago there would have been a rousing tap dance, we have to settle for some rather anaemic choreographed strutting. Finally, Sebastian and Mia are dragged back to reality by the ring of a mobile phone; there could be no better symbol for modernity rudely interrupting Chazelle’s nostalgic fantasies.

‘How can you be a revolutionary when you’re such a traditionalist?’ That’s the challenge bandleader Keith (John Legend) lays down to novelty-shy Sebastian, but it applies equally to the film as a whole. It’s a fair question, and across its two-hour duration, La La Land struggles to find a convincing answer. When Sebastian finally finds success with his old-school jazz club, the message seems to be: it doesn’t matter if what you do is old-fashioned, as long as you do it with enough passion. So the plot has to flag up a justification for the film’s very existence — an oddly defensive posture for something that should be so joyful and assertive.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in LA LA LAND. Photo credit: Dale RobinetteSebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in LA LA LAND. Photograph: Dale Robinette

As if the constant name-dropping of bygone Hollywood stars weren’t enough, La La Land climaxes with a montage sequence that contains stylised sets directly lifted from Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris. To whom are these cinephile references meant to appeal? They will mean nothing to the majority of viewers, and for the minority who are familiar with their sources they merely serve to underline the paucity of originality at the film’s core. With this unrestrained cribbing, Chazelle joins Richard Ayoade in the ranks of young, talented cinephiles who make films that wear their impeccable influences — and little else — on their sleeve.

Just as the similarly-hyped The Artist failed to kickstart a revival of the silent film, La La Land is, for all its eagerness to please, unlikely to herald a substantial new chapter in the history of the movie musical. Its best hope is that, it in its reverence for cinema’s past, it provides a form of education for a generation unfamiliar with the classics — a gateway drug to the class-A substances of Demy, Kelly, Astaire and Rogers.

by Jackson Caines

La La Land is on release now and can be seen in the UK here