There is some originality in this orgy of borrowing, with easy references to touch screens, cell phones, and an interracial marriage, but all with a constant backward orientation. La La Land tries to be so stale it looks fresh, from its opening CinemaScope logo to its MGM style The End closing shot.
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It’s January 9, 2017, and last night La La Land scooped up more Golden Globes than any single film in history. It’s now poised as the favorite for the Best Picture Academy Award. Not a huge surprise, perhaps, since we grasp for simple delights to counter the Satanic Ascension heading our way January 20. And Hollywood has lately been enamored with its own reflections on show business – witness acclaim and awards for Argo, The Artist, and Birdman. La La Land follows right in line, with an added claim to updating and reinventing the musical genre. Musicals forever get a bum rap, as though we reject spontaneously breaking into song in an age of realism. Let us now turn to Disney’s new big-budget, live-action, CGI-smothered Beauty and the Beast, complete with talking harpsichord and feather duster. What was that about realism?
Musicals struggle not because we’ve rejected fantasy; they struggle because we live in the wrong era. They have faced dire challenges at least since the breakup of the studio system. Without well-nurtured contracted musical talent, or movie stars with genuine gifts at singing and dancing, the results can be regrettable. La La Land’s star duo of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone certainly don’t flounder quite like Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren in Man of La Mancha. They’re endearing and have real chemistry, and are intermittently well served by writer-director Damien Chazelle. They’re both convincing in their quests for dream careers in jazz (his) and acting (hers).
But – and this is a big but – Chazelle regularly sabotages his own attempts to make an exhilarating movie. Rather like the jazz purist that Gosling plays here, the musical purist will likely be disappointed. Chazelle is heavily reliant on visual references, some vague and some blatant, from musical glory days. He spares us Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscopes, but we get the Singin’ in the Rain lamppost, the An American in Paris painted ballet, the low-ceilinged bar where Judy Garland laments “The Man That Got Away” in A Star is Born, and even the twinkling starlights of “Begin the Beguine” from Broadway Melody of 1940. That last one took real nerve, for Chazelle references what is probably the greatest tap dance ever filmed, where Fred Astaire moved heaven and earth to keep pace with Eleanor Powell. There is some originality in this orgy of borrowing, with easy references to touch screens, cell phones, and an interracial marriage, but all with a constant backward orientation. La La Land tries to be so stale it looks fresh, from its opening CinemaScope logo to its MGM style The End closing shot.
Chazelle has proclaimed Jacques Demy’s 1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg “the greatest movie ever made,” and, oh boy, that bit of information explains a lot, especially his film’s unhappy happy ending. However, the score by Justin Hurwitz isn’t special enough to pull off the glorious cinematic poetics of the all-sung Cherbourg. La La Land’s opening flash-mob-style number “Another Day of Sun” is set against a put-it-in-park LA traffic jam. It doesn’t transcend the dreariness of that setting, so we’re left with … a singing-dancing traffic jam. There are a few infectious ditties, but nothing on the level of Cherbourg’s immortal “I Will Wait for You.” When John Legend shows up for the rousing “Start a Fire,” the inferiority of Hurwitz’s score couldn’t be plainer.
Chazelle had the good sense to film dance numbers full-body and with minimal cuts, rejecting the discombobulating slice-and-dice methods of Chicago that camouflage two left feet. The problem here is you need genuine dance skill to justify longer takes. In the nighttime vista scene, where Gosling and Stone consummate their attraction, they do a nifty routine on a bench, but the gliding that follows reveals their lack of training, particularly hers. There’s no metaphoric sex happening that infuses the better dance duos. With hair in her face, and arms lacking strength and lyricism, she needs more lessons.
Chazelle’s boy-gets-girl-boy-loses-girl plot has the simplicity and reduction of 1929’s Paleolithic Broadway Melody. Action stops less often for production numbers and more often for Gosling and Stone’s phantom walks through quasi-magical LA landscapes. What La La Land has going for it is a minor-chord melancholy amidst the pursuit of dreams. Quite against recent convention, La La Land suggests you can’t have it all, and further, there’s no tragedy in that. It’s a risky choice, the film slowly revealing its unusual relationship to our expectations, but it invests rather too much time and effort in getting there. There’s little of interest besides mood in the protracted midsection, no suspense, no mistaken identity, no secrets and lies, and no lovable supporting characters found in everything from Top Hat to Thoroughly Modern Millie. As is, a brutish J. K. Simmons does a cameo while a few scattered roommates and relatives show up and then disappear. Gosling and Stone are expected to carry more than two hours themselves, and despite his genial cool and her extraterrestrial eyes, it’s a chore too heavy for them.
Maybe exhilaration of the Singin’ in the Rain kind was not on Chazelle’s to-do list. Scenes are lit in obscuring darkness. The camera takes a subjective view of drowning as it bobs above and below the water line of a Hockneyesque swimming pool. It later swirls around Emma’s head like a mosquito on reconnaissance. And for all this carping, there are moments of real pleasure in seeing two attractive stars groove harmoniously with a writer-director who knows and loves old films. A for effort. I just can’t help wishing for the new musical that might have been.