If ever a movie had a broad range of audiences predisposed to accept it with open arms surely La La Land would qualify. Many seasoned film buffs cherishing memories of musicals from the ‘30s into the ‘60s have been eager to see what might be up, and many younger fans of Ryan Gosling and/or Emma Stone were game. The reviews of several leading critics were respectful, some even effusive, box office worldwide has passed $135 million, the film won all seven of the Golden Globes for which it had been nominated, a Globes record total of wins—and now there are the record-tying 14 Oscar nominations.
In the cold light of a new year that finds a majority of Americans looking everywhere possible for a lift, a not insignificant number are leaving La La Land unenchanted, and the deflation has evoked unwelcome questioning: Is there something wrong with me? Am I beyond help or repair? In the land of Astaire-Rogers innocent sophistication and Garland-Rooney “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show?” enthusiasm, have I so succumbed to the prevailing pall that I can no longer even go to the damned movies and be uplifted? In all probability the answer to all of these questions is no. One need not be a curmudgeon to experience stirrings of dissent, or to observe—perhaps even with some fond indulgence—that Hollywood’s solipsistic self-regard can be, at times, bottomless.
A perfectly understandable reaction to seeing La La Land is a generous hope that the film may help broaden the receptivity of some younger viewers and perhaps encourage them to check out some musicals of the past they’ve never bothered to watch. And there are some good scenes in its amblings. It’s just that one has to put up not only with some fairly pallid, derivative music and staging but with director Damien Chazelle’s insistence that the artistic integrity and eventual success of his two lead characters Mia and Sebastian (Stone and Gosling) depend primarily on their being mulish loners whose belief in themselves arises not from any demonstrable degree or quality of talent but from a me-first and me-against-everyone-else attitude that borders on sociopathy. It’s clear that Chazelle intends Mia and Seb not to be obvious mega-talents, to be more “average” and (to stoop to that awful coinage) more “relatable”. But many of the lead characters in the old RKO confections, the Fred and Ginger series, the MGM spectaculars, and Broadway-to-film musicals of the ‘50s were everyday Joes and Janes, too. The difference here is that Mia and Seb’s my-way-or- the-highway edginess too often comes across not so much as artistic integrity as self-involved pique. One could say that gauged by the lowest possible common denominators of the demographic La La Land is a musical for millennials.
What helps us relate to the characters in the various heydays of movie musicals is that not only is the superb talent of an Astaire or Garland rousing in itself, the characters are working together—as is usually the case in the performing arts—to create something larger. Here, it’s everyone for him or herself and if I don’t get to be “it” I’m going home. An aspiring actress, Mia’s big audition involves a monologue of her own making, for a starring role in a movie that has no script and will, a casting agent says, be “built around” her. Seb, a pianist, wants to open a jazz club and play jazz (“pure jazz,”), but he’s little interested in the organic give-and-take inherent in that form and prefers solos. (This same ideal of musical artistry was on view in Chazelle’s 2014 Whiplash in which the young drummer was dedicated to a formula of fast-loud- and-alone, egocentric bombast, and having no use for anyone else on the stage.)
The opening number is a strained exertion—a traffic jam on the freeway with people shouting some not always audible lyrics and squeezing some awkward dance moves among the cars. The only thing catching the uneasy eye and ear in this banal, unappealing kickstart is the evident mechanical labor in coordinating the bodies, overdubbing, and hardware. Mia rehearses lines at the steering wheel of her Prius, oblivious to all around her, and blocks Seb’s forward movement in his old classic convertible. He honks, she gives him the finger. This rather dispiriting “meet cute” is a harbinger of the tone to come.
Emma Stone is not a singer or dancer. That she manages to avoid outright embarrassment in the film is a testament to her skills as an actor—and she brings all she can to it—but, even putting music aside, Chazelle’s script doesn’t give her much help. There is conspicuously little interest in the real lives of these two young people beyond the Will I-Won’t I? of their tunnel-vision ambition to make it. Mia remains a tabla rasa. She mentions having dropped out of college to pursue her dream in L.A., and in her audition monologue we do get an elliptical reference to a beloved bohemian aunt who introduced her to classic movies, but that’s it. When she stages a one-woman show at a small theatre, we see nothing of it or the effort she puts into it. When she then throws in the towel and moves back temporarily to her parents’ home, we learn nothing of her past or of her family. Seb, on the other hand, talks quite a bit—but here again, we get no sense of who he is, why he’s driven, how his exacting tastes were formed. And when we’re given brief riffs of his much-discussed “purity” it’s more reminiscent of high-end digital elevator music than of Oscar Peterson or Art Tatum.
Ryan Gosling can dance well and pleasingly carry a tune. One of the more obtusely ironic questions of La La Land is that—given this—why is he not given more to do? Some of the tenuous little sequences could easily have been extended to showcase his ability and afford some genuine lift. As it is, the film has only a few musical passages and, though they all “work”, what is chiefly apparent is an enormous investment of rehearsal time just to attain sufficiency. At the end of numbers in which Gosling is oddly not allowed to do more, and Stone manages just to get by, we breathe a sigh of relief rather than one of elated wonder.
There’s been a good deal of comment about the film in part paying homage to the screen musicals of Vincente Minnelli, but what gave Minnelli’s work its heart and memorable sentiment was its intimacy. For all its colorful palette and sometimes strenuous push, La La Land is curiously uninvolving. It is only in the last third of the film that we get anything even resembling genuine emotion and, sadly, that is only in comparison to the contrivance and shallowness that precedes it. La La Land lacks imagination, its emotions are processed and packaged, and the whole enterprise is governed by a cumbersome sense of self-absorption masquerading as naturalistic true grit and strained whimsy where we might hope for musical expertise or innocence or elan. La La Land is watchable and at times enjoyable, but many viewers are completely justified in finding it a mystery that the movie is being so widely vaunted as a return of the musical genre to relevance, to new possibility, or even to some new golden age. It may be part of a renaissance, but it doesn’t exactly make you a Dismal Jimmy to hope that such a wan, denatured film doesn’t become accepted by the industry as an archetype.
A legitimate test of this film may well be: will you watch it again? Recently I saw for a second time John Carney’s 2013 indie Begin Again. My wife had not seen it in release and I thought she might enjoy it as light entertainment. She did and, more than I might’ve guessed, I did, too— even more than on first viewing. The cast, led by Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, and Adam Levine lend the small story credible conflict and aspiration and the music is good and nicely integrated. The film is both modest and classy enough not to overplay its hand. Or for another comparison, consider the 2008 film version of Mamma Mia!, opened up from the Broadway stage play with intelligent verve by opera director Phyllida Lloyd and brought to engaging life by a seriously talented and altogether delightful cast of pros headed by Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, and Julie Walters. It’s not Hamlet—or West Side Story or even The Wizard of Oz—but it has a charming artistic wholeness, a level of splendid endeavor that gives joy: because its expertise is not merely unabashed but precise and proud it remains imminently enjoyable. You sit there, enrapt with the gorgeous color and scale of the Aegean setting, the supreme silliness of the material’s fabulism, the robust choreography, even the artifice and staginess which Lloyd (very appropriately) chooses to embrace and enhance, let an A+ cast sweep you along, and— young-hearted and willing—jog your head and shoulders to the ABBA songs.
One wonders how many viewers will be drawn to sit through La La Land again.
– Hadley Hury