As Nick Pinkerton’s review notes, the musicals that have come and gone in the last couple of decades have – through form and, to some degree, theme – noted, “They don’t make them like they used to.” But La La Land does try earnestly and effortfully to make them like the used to, “they” being the likes of Jacques Demy or Vincente Minelli or Stanley Donen. I can’t help but wonder why Damien Chazelle, an incredibly proficient director, wanted to “make them like they used to”. Is he just a caustic nostalgist?
La La Land’s leads, aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and aspiring jazz club owner Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) certainly are, and their taciturn relationship with modernity makes them totems of a kind of trademark or pet interest for Chazelle, shall we say, oeuvre. They are frustrated people that must compromise their hopes and dreams, and their hopes and dreams are romanticized notions of the past. They are assumptions that the techniques that could make artists great half a century ago should, too, be able to make artists great now. There’s a shade of Nick Hornby and Bret Easton Ellis in Chazelle; an zealous adoration for how to do a thing and why that how is important and should be preserved.
It’s in Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Chazelle’s first film (also a musical) about struggling artists and jazz and dancing; and in Whiplash, about a struggling jazz drummer; and in La La Land. Chazelle seems to reserve the obsessiveness for his male characters, which is not to say that his female characters (at least in his first and most recent films) don’t have dreams, it’s just that they don’t seem as unhinged. It makes Chazelle’s films have a bit of a masculinist edge to them, hence a kind of violent relationship to practice making perfect in Whiplash and a real contempt for contemporary art industry in La La Land. (Guy and Madeline is shot in a very Cassavetes-esque, way, so there’s also that.) There’s definitely a sneer on the backlot of Warner Bros., where Mia works as a barista, and it’s at stupid, lazy TV. That sneer comes out at a “samba and tapas” place, as well, which was once, apparently, a much beloved club that Seb wants to buy and refurbish into a place that plays “pure” jazz, whatever that means.
So, yes, Chazelle – or is it his characters? – don’t really cope with change very well. But a lot of characters don’t. A lot of characters are stuck in the past, and a lot of characytrts settle for less – here, Seb settles for playing with a popular neo-jazz/pop band headlined by John Legend – and a lot of characters get placed in movies that use films of the past to, you know, juxtapose their realities. Say, Pennies from Heaven, Herbert Ross’s adaptation of Dennis Potter’s serial drama about folks in the Depression who are not only unsatisfied with their lives, but seem to mess it up more with each action.
Ross’s film was curious in the way it juxtaposed an unappealing, often gross “reality” with not only musical sequences staged to accentuate the artifice of their fantasies, but with characters lip-syncing to period recordings of songs. You don’t hear Christopher Walken’s voice during “Let’s Misbehave”, just his lips moving and the seedy bar Bernadette Peters has found herself in turn into a little bit of a dance hall for Walken’s shoes. The thing that that film knew how to do was use its cheery jazz songs to harden the lines between its ebullient music and its painful reality. La La Land’s reality is, like, fine?
Not to invalidate the rejection of artists, but for some reason, nothing feels particularly urgent in the film. Even if you would want to root for these characters, as I’m sure most would, it’s not like there’s much in this world – pristine and kind of devoid of texture beyond its art direction – that’ll send its leas flying off into the annals of awfulness. It might be, as Pinkerton also suggests, a slightly more realistic look at what might happen when your dreams are crushed or your potential is not so much wasted as put on the back burner, but the sight of its dream defying set pieces (which are often very good, particularly “Another Day of Sun”) would suggest that there’s something that needs to balance that out. Is the version of “balancing it out” painting Los Angeles in blue? Another interesting choice, as LA is well known for its tungsten painted streets, especially for a film that has little regard for the LA it’s sculpting.
Streets that Stone and Gosling take to every so often in dancing shoes that bare a mild competence. The problem to me, though, is that these are pretty competent people, so that their aspirations are not totally fulfilled would not really bother me. Gosling is a talented pianist, but, like, okay? There’s not exactly verve in the songs he’s writing, just a kind of mopey quasi-classicism. (“City of Stars”, the repeating song in the film, is, like, not great.) And we don’t get to see Stone act except in auditions, and she, too, is fine. Even their relationship is fine, uncompelling even in the ways that their career ambitions put a wedge between them.
It’s worth noting that Stone had a tenure on Broadway as Sally Bowles in a recent revival of John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Hal Prince’s Cabaret. In it, Sally Bowles vastly overestimates her talent (not so in Fosse’s film, but whatever, her life situation sucked enough for it to make sense), which makes her desire for stardom a little ludicrous on what amounts to a passable voice. Stone – or Mia? – has a passable voice that’s persistently asked to sing a bit out of range, but Mia’s ambition is not illustrated to be as lustrous as Sally’s. Sally has an ego, but Mia is too stricken with self-doubt and anxiety of her talents, but her marginal competence makes it hard for that anxiety to register as either overblown or underestimated. In other words, she’s not good enough to warrant being an underdog with spectacular talents, nor is she bad enough for it to seem tragicomic. (She does get a couples notes in a minor key!)
Both Pennies from Heaven and Cabaret, and Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, are capital D depressing, which is not a good thing in and of itself, but the films make a point of justifying the worlds it’s creating, which La La Land never seems to do.
And Seb is too much of a dick and purist about jazz. While Classic Hollywood stuff may saturate Mia’s life, and room, and workspace, she’s not anal about it. Even though the scene in which Seb plays with John Legend is shot in an attractive way, neon lights beaming down on everyone, there’s an obvious expression of internal settlement there. It comparison to the rest of the film, it’s shot like a music video. Though there are remnants of certain techniques Chazelle employed for Whiplash, namely close ups on instruments and hands, there’s a little bit of a disinterest. The same disinterest that’s on Seb’s face during the set. Everything else in the film is shot lovingly in saturate colors, unbroken long shots, spotlights that isolate characters so we understand their feels. This is a music video, almost begrudgingly made.
If that scene is the only part of the film willing to sidestep its wondrous vision of a breathtaking, out of reality Los Angeles, the rest of it is pleasantly lifted from the films to which it owes its due. And, as aforementioned, a lot of people do that and that is fine. Except I still don’t quite understand why. If there is real frustration that informs La La Land, the film isn’t hard edged or cynical enough to read as satire, and instead, its earnestness feels a little hypocritical. Also, I usually am under the impression that pastiches tend to do something with the methods of yore to comment on something contemporary, or at least do something new and justify itself. It doesn’t even seem to justify a kind of lovely escapism, only peddling a sort of golden (age of Hollywood) thinking, leaving me to shrug it off and go home to rewatch Chicago. (Yeah, I said it.)