La La Land is a grand return of the ye olde style musical. Filmed in Cinemascope, full of bright colours and extravagant dance routines, this is Damien Chazelle’s ode to the films of yore – a look in the pool of remembrance and seeing the past through rose tinted glasses. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling team up for the third time, singing us all this story of two struggling artists trying to keep their art alive in a world that is seemingly changing around them. Does anybody want to listen to jazz anymore? Does anybody want to watch a movie in a theatre anymore?
Opening with an epic song and dance number on a Los Angeles freeway overpass, La La Land appears to be all about finding the joy and beauty in the tedious moments of life. As the sun eternally shines down of the city of stars, no matter what the season, people break out into songs that ideally inspire joy in the viewer. Depending on your level of cynicism, you’ll theoretically be swept up in the grandeur of the piece, becoming fully invested in the hopes and dreams of Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling).
However, for this film goer, I was forever seeking the moment in the film that would sweep me off my feet and carry me away on its (obviously) wonderful journey. Chazelle has created the sort of film that the big screen was created for. It is the dictionary definition of sumptuous. Yet, for all its clearly pure intentions, I found myself regularly distanced from these characters – only able to admire their stories, rather than feeling as if I were ever invited to become emotionally invested in them. Given that this is a film that is driven by emotions, it then simply becomes a really nice looking film, with some really nice songs, rather than something that left me floating out the theatre door with my heart singing high.
The chemistry between Stone and Gosling is palpable, and of the three onscreen outings together, this is easily the most wondrous to view. Stone’s performance is hugely aspirational. Her Mia is an actress attempting to land just one job, gradually becoming aware of her possible limited acting skills. Wide eyed, she gathers in everything she sees, hyper-aware of the cinematic history living in the world around her – a window that was in Casablanca, faces of movie stars long past on a wall.
Gosling’s Sebastian is a somewhat stubborn piano player, steadfast in his love and respect for old timey jazz. He’s bitter about the genres falling out with the general public. Chazelle’s films have often touched on jazz as a music form, with Whiplash utilising the genre to depict a story of teacher and student, and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench using jazz as a vessel to tell a love story. In one of La La Land’s standout scenes, Sebastian explains the power of jazz as a communication tool, in turn saying something profound about the art of music. As a commentary on jazz itself, it’s great, but as an allegory for the transformation of film over the years it’s even better.
At once, La La Land is about adoring the varied history of the city of Los Angeles – where every street corner is a stage, and every winding road tells a different story. It’s about respecting the past, wanting to honour the history that has come before, while carrying that through on your own path, forged by the dreams fuelled by the movie stars long gone. Stone delivers Mia’s dream as a lived in entity – it’s hard not to make a correlation between her own career and that of Mia’s.
This is a song and dance show, and Emma Stone delivers beautifully with a great voice. There’s no denying this girl can not only act, but sing, and dance as well. Her effortless moving and grooving is a sight to see. Ryan Gosling delivers on the acting, the dancing, the piano playing – however when paired with Stone, his singing just isn’t up to par. At times, it’s almost enough to wish that Chazelle went full-homage and had a professional singer redub Gosling’s vocals to really make the character of Sebastian shine. It’s not Russell Crowe in Les Miserables level, instead more like Richard Gere in Chicago – fine, but underwhelming.
Tangential discussions with wealthy relatives about hi-def home theatres are contrasted with shots of closing down theatres. A historical jazz site has now been turned into a samba/tapas bar. What were once environments that breed and harnessed creative energies, have now moved way to allow a different, less cultured world to flourish. There’s a great relatability to Sebastian’s constant bewilderment that such a place as a historical jazz site could be turned into a fusion bar – just like many other venues in LA. His conversation with his sister, Laura (the underused Rosemarie DeWitt), about a stool that he owns that a titan of jazz history once owned is amusing, but apt. Everybody needs somewhere to sit, but they don’t have to sit on this particular stool – after all, there are many stools out there in the world, go find your own and stop ruining this particular one.
Chazelle has his feet in two worlds here – he’s dragging the vibrant routines of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg into a modern setting, and by doing so, he’s intending to make the old palatable for the young. After all, aren’t all these new films filled with dohickeys and whizzbangs that old films didn’t have? Why can’t they just be nice and simple stories once again? Why can’t they just be a story about love and dreams and happiness? What’s with all the explosions and histrionics? Why can’t the old be new again?
Through Linus Sandgren’s cinematography, we’re delivered a perspective of Los Angeles that has rarely been seen on film – the winding streets with epic abodes have been shown before, but how many times have we viewed the lovely sunsets from the street fronts of said houses? This is the viewpoint of someone who is truly, unabashedly, unashamedly in love with the city and all that it represents. Costumes by Mary Zophres assist the vibrancy, no doubt encouraging next years must have fashion lines. If – for some reason – the music doesn’t maintain your interest, then the visuals at least will. It’s not all positives, with the fabled dance in the Griffith’s Observatory initially appearing lovely with its dark blue backdrop, but moves into prime cheese territory and coming off as almost deliberately fake.
Fortunately, La La Land doesn’t stray into the realm of navel-gazing too often. Yes, the introspective look at Los Angeles feels awfully narrow and almost aimed at those with an undying love for the city. No doubt people who live in LA will swoon endlessly over this film, and ideally, for the cineastes out there, this should be as heart-warming as the smell of freshly popped popcorn. For regular cinema goers, or those simply looking to watch the latest Oscar-buzzed film, then they’ll no doubt enjoy the lovely performances and nice songs – but I do wonder if they’ll be as swept up in the film as those who have an interest in film history, or consume films and film discussion on a regular basis.
For this regular film viewer, I sit somewhere in the middle of the two. My love for cinema is maybe a little more irregular than most – I admire the output of Hollywood, but find myself seeking out films that stray outside the norm of tinseltown. The joy and heartbreak that La La Land is providing is not one that resonated with me as a film-goer. I appreciate its story, I can see the technically prowess on display, and I admire the musical aspects; I find Damien Chazelle’s direction wonderful, and Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are lovely to watch. Yet, for all this beauty and wonder, I can only find myself admiring La La Land from a distance. Maybe I’m too cynical a film viewer, as I found myself too often seeing the machinations of the film, rather admiring the output of said machinations.
With all of that said, there’s nothing wrong with not connecting with a film that many have connected with. It’s why the term ‘guilty pleasure’ exists – there are many films out there that people have had an emotional connection with that a greater audience has not. Does that make the greater audience wrong, or that one viewer the incorrect party? Is there even a way to incorrectly watch a film? La La Land does propose to answer that question with Mia’s proposal that she doesn’t like jazz at all – solely on the basis of elevator music and Kenny G. Is she wrong for disliking a genre of music based on the arguably watered down versions of that genre? Yes and no. Through education and exposure to the history of that music, she grows to love it. Are the wide swathes of people in the world who dismiss entire groups of films as redundant or boring (read: Australian cinema), just ignorant, or is there a truth behind what they say? This review may not be the place to go into that, but it’s something worth pondering.
What of my circumstances then? I have grown up watching, loving and adoring musicals, only to find that the musical and one of the most critically adored films of 2016 hasn’t resonated with me? Well, this time I’m Principal Skinner, and maybe, just maybe, the kids aren’t wrong.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Rosemarie DeWitt
Writer: Damien Chazelle