La La Land

 

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The eagerly anticipated new film from the director of Whiplash takes homage to a new level and calls for a longer review than usual.

 
La La Land

Ryan Gosling tickles his ivories

  

Already hotly tipped for an Oscar, this is Damien Chazelle's follow-up to his memorable Whiplash. Although music plays a prominent part in both films, La La Land is a very different beast although Chazelle has retained the services of his editor, Tom Cross, and his composer, Justin Hurwitz. Of the two it is Hurwitz whose work is the more important this time. The editing by Cross was crucial to the impact of Whiplash but, despite a few nifty contributions when jazz is heard, it plays a lesser role here, yielding pride of place to camera movement that crucially invests the piece with energy. Hurwitz, in contrast, has a key contribution to make providing a full vocal score that channels the work of Michel Legrand for Jacques Demy.

 

As the title indicates, Chazelle as writer has come up with a story set in Los Angeles, a romantic work centred on two people: there's Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actress forever taking unworthy auditions but hoping for stardom, and Seb (Ryan Gosling), a pianist also unrecognised as yet. He dreams of opening a jazz club but meanwhile churns out banal popular tunes for diners. Their story starts as a series of comically unsympathetic encounters until, as we knew it would, their relationship grows into a loving one on both sides. But will their differing ambitions come into conflict despite the love that both have come to feel so strongly?

 

Such a tale, be it seen as comedy or drama, does not demand a film that is a musical, but Chazelle clearly loves the cinema of the late Jacques Demy and La La Land derives from the French director's two best known films, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967). There are other echoes too. Other Hollywood-set tales come to mind as do the musicals of Gene Kelly, but more significantly Woody Allen is evoked (in particular the recent Café Society dealing with an earlier phase of Hollywood's history and his musical of 1996, Everyone Says I Love You). Nevertheless, it is Demy whose influence is so strong that La La Land could not possibly exist without him. An extra homage incorporated - to the James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause (1955) - is in contrast purely incidental.

 

La La Land opens with a sequence which finds Chazelle's film at its best. This sequence is one which features traffic caught in a snarl-up on an L.A. flyover. In addition to giving Mia and Seb their first sight of each other, it shows the drivers getting out of their cars and joining in a song and dance. The swirling camera movement is exhilarating and it is immediately recognisable in its choreography and style as drawing on the Demy of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. Consequently, it seems apt that the film's tone should be light-hearted with Seb disdaining Mia while she is hooked enough to pursue him but sufficiently strong-minded to match his manner by concealing her potentially serious desires. Their banter amuses without ever feeling real, but then this is a world in which a dance number will see them rising off the ground and plots never meant much in the film musicals of, say, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers with whom Gosling and Stone have been inappropriately compared. They do dance a bit, and there's some singing. The latter is not really Gosling's forte but, as a big solo number confirms, Stone is rather more adept vocally - at the same time Stone's turn here has nothing like the impact made by Anne Hathaway in the musical treatment of Les Misérables (2012). Not that these relative shortcomings matter too much when Chazelle's energy and his romantic warmth catch up his stars in a world of stunning colours which once again echoes Demy. Both Stone and Gosling have been more at home in other films but they have no difficulty in holding screen centre here, this being a film which gives limited opportunities to its supporting cast (Rosemarie DeWitt has little to do and one assumes that the cameo by J. K. Simmons as a demanding restaurant owner is a friendly acknowledgment to Chazelle for having given him a great role in Whiplash).

 

If the above comments hardly suggest that the film is a potential Oscar winner, neither do they do much to explain why my rating for La La Land should be so low. But the fact is that, while Chazelle's admiration for Demy is clearly genuine, he has attempted to conjoin Les Demoiselles de Rochefort and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg without realising that they are inherently different. Rochefort is a fantasy romance, a concoction created to entertain and to pay homage (in that case to Hollywood musicals). Cherbourg is Demy's masterpiece and a deeply insightful work that is emotionally charged with characters that feel real to us despite the quasi-operatic stylisation of telling their story without any spoken dialogue. What La La Land does is to start out in the manner of Rochefort and then to demand that we take the central characters as seriously as those in Cherbourg (indeed, the last section of La La Land plays as a variation of the closing segment of Cherbourg).

 

Enjoyable as the first half has been, one can't suddenly believe in and care about characters who have been established as part of a make-believe world and in any case the serious story of the film's second half is not above using without tongue in cheek that old cliché in which Mia reserves a seat for Seb at her first night when, due to a forgotten musical engagement, he is unable to attend. Given a lull in the music in the middle stages and a story that no longer commands the requisite degree of disbelief to be effective, La La Land comes to seem inordinately long at 128 minutes. Much of the first half is very enjoyable and Chazelle's spirited direction is genuine evidence of his range, but the sense that the buzz about this film fails to reflect its true quality is confirmed by its ending. It seems probable that the film's fantasy finale is meant to prove the value of Hollywood make-belief, but it needs to be set off against a sadder reality in a telling way if it is to satisfy and, although that could have been done, Chazelle quite fails to bring this off. But, given the state of the world today, it won't surprise me if mine is a minority view with many audiences welcoming the escapism that this kind of movie provides. The Oscar may, indeed, go to Chazelle but give me Demy every time.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J. K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno, Jessica Rothe, Tom Everett Scott, Josh Pence.

 

Dir Damien Chazelle, Pro Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, Gary Gilbert and Marc Platt, Screenplay Damien Chazelle, Ph Linus Sandgren, Pro Des David Wasco, Ed Tom Cross, Music Justin Hurwitz, Costumes Mary Zophres, Choreography Mandy Moore.

 

Summit Entertainment/Imposter Pictures/Gilbert Films/Black Label Media/TIK Films (Hong Kong)-Lionsgate.
128 mins. USA/Hong Kong. 2016. Rel: 13 January 2017. Cert. 12A.