La La Land

The ever-charming Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in a whimsical musical set in Hollywood and directed by Damien Chazelle, the wunderkind behind the extraordinary Whiplash?  Sign me up!  It’s a while since I’ve been this excited to see a movie based on the creative team alone.

On paper, La La Land sounds like a guaranteed cinematic slam dunk.  Or, in terms that Chazelle is probably more comfortable with, a killer Coltrane tenor solo that blows the roof off Birdland, or something.

If you’re wondering whether La La Land is worth seeing, wonder no more – there’s a reason it’s among the favourites this award season. But I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I’d hoped, and while although several elements of it still leave me smiling whenever I think about them,  the story’s overall trajectory didn’t entirely pay off for me.

For starters, the tale of Mia, a struggling actress, romancing Sebastian, a broke jazz pianist and relentless purist, feels fairly boilerplate – I’ve seen characters like these in at least half a dozen Woody Allen movies. And without wishing to reveal what happens to our star-crossed lovers, many of the beats of the story were familiar indeed.

Oh look, a scene where they have a sudden moment of conflict caused by the tension between their personal career goals and the romantic couple ones! Tick, high distinction in screenwriting structure. And when it veers away from the formula, Chazelle’s plot develops in a way that’s certainly interesting, but not necessarily emotionally rewarding.

For another thing, driven, career-focussed creatives are often highly self-absorbed, a charge of which neither character is entirely innocent. Can the duo get over their sense that each of them is special and talented enough to genuinely love another human being? Stick around to the end credits to find out!

It’s certainly no fault of Stone and Gosling, opposite one another for the third time after the fabulous Crazy Stupid Love and the apparently less so Gangster Squad – but at their radiant best here.

Playing – let’s face it – the characters they usually play, a bright, smart ray of sunshine and a brooding thinker with hidden depths, Stone and Gosling’s early flirtations sparkle with old-time Hollywood magic, but the dialogue is all sassy-smart 2016, with some of the strongest rom-com banter I’ve heard in a long time. Chazelle is undoubtedly one of the best screenwriters around.

You wouldn’t exactly call his stars triple threats, but their singing voices are likeable enough, and the somewhat simple choreography certainly gets the job done. Chazelle also wisely flicks the switch to Vaudeville for most of their musical numbers, surrounding them with so much colour and movement that it doesn’t matter that we aren’t exactly dealing with Fred and Ginger.

The director’s experiment is to dress the complexities and uncertainties of a modern romance in the accoutrements of a full-blown Busby Berkeley musical, and while it’s certainly an interesting exercise, and far from a failure in its execution, it didn’t leave me with the unalloyed delight I often feel when watching a less self-conscious musical lighting up the big screen.

Penny Marshall’s Chicago switched seamlessly between ‘real’ live-action and stylised, staged production numbers, and yet the characters were still engrossing, the plot compelling, and the satire sharp. It may not have been a comment on the genre as a whole in the manner that La La Land is attempting, but it was a successful movie musical. Whereas in Chazelle’s effort, the musical numbers sometimes feel like they get in the way of the compelling chemistry between the two leads rather than enhancing it.

The music itself is also a problem. Unfortunately Chazelle’s regular collaborator Justin Hurwitz is stretched beyond his limits here, and the lyrics by emerging musical theatre lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul don’t deliver the zing of the director’s own dialogue. There is a delightful number called ‘ City of Stars ’ that lodged itself in my brain for days, but other than that, there’s little to entice anyone to buy the soundtrack.

Part of the problem is that La La Land doesn’t know whether it wants to be a clever deconstruction of its genre or an on-point modern update of it. This is evident in the first duet where Gosling and Stone sing about the total lack of chemistry between them – a funny sketch on SNL, perhaps, but more clever than heartfelt here, especially set in front of the most gorgeous Angeleno sunset imaginable.

Similarly, John Legend appears as Sebastian’s bandmate, performing a moderately pleasant jazz-R&B fusion number – but we know Gosling’s character despises it as a departure from ‘real’ jazz, which rather undermines our own enjoyment.

And unless he really can’t sing for toffee, the decision not to give J.K. Simmons’ restaurant manager more to do, and a musical number in which to do it, seems criminal when their last collaboration landed the hypercharismatic veteran an Oscar. (Chazelle’s dialogue was nominated for one as well, which is another reason why I wish there was more of it here.)

It would be remiss of me, though, not to acknowledge the many, many positives of this film. It’s full of warmth and charm, it looks extraordinary, and it’s an idiosyncratic love letter to LA the likes of which we haven’t seen since Steve Martin’s LA Story.

Gosling deserves many plaudits for piano miming so accomplished that I wondered whether he played – apparently he could pull all of the complex jazz pieces by the end of filming. And above all, the film’s final musical number, and especially its final moment, restores some of the sense of awe that I felt during the film’s first act. It’s a tour de force.

I’m marking La La Land‘s shortcomings very harshly, mostly because I had such high hopes for it, and partly because Damien Chazelle seems deeply interested in perfectionism, so it feels fitting to apply to some to his own output.

But while it’s somewhere short of the timeless classic it aspires to be, there haven’t been many to beat it this year at the quality end of the market, and its Oscar favourite status is deserved. Chazelle has once again proven himself one of Hollywood’s most accomplished young filmmakers, and while this isn’t quite the equal of Whiplash, very few films are.

I could watch Stone and Gosling do just about anything – a claim I may be required to test if I ever see Gangster Squad – and they’ve delivered an endearing Hollywood tale with some wonderful romantic scenes, a handful of decent songs and quite a few visually spectacular flights of fancy.

That’s a pretty great night at the movies by anyone’s standards, and La La Land is certainly a sufficiently delightful confection to be worth a trip to the CinemaScope screen these holidays.

Most critics unashamedly adore La La Land – but in the Culture Wars podcast, Giles Hardie and I argue both sides of every film…

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