Dir: Damien Chazelle
Starr: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend
Viewed: Cameo, Edinburgh (Screen 1)
La La Land (2016) is a suitably self-absorbed love-letter to the grand artifice of the Hollywood ‘dream factory’ and the sprawling cityscape that houses it. That city, Los Angeles, has become so intertwined with one of its most successful industries that for the dreamers and fantasists seeking fame and fortune in film, its projections of Hollywood ‘unreality’ can make an experience of its urban ‘reality’ dispiriting at best. For a geographic location that has produced so much filmed entertainment, it has only a very slender film presence of its own. We know an L.A. beyond the film sets and studio backlots exists, but how little interest that L.A. seems to hold for Hollywood. In Damien Chazelle’s first directorial feature since his breakthrough movie Whiplash (2014) the dream of Hollywood glitz and glamour, and the undimmed belief in its artifice, is allowed to dance lightly across the city’s cinematic landmarks, never once taking the trouble to look behind the scenery and set decoration. It is purest fantasy, exuberant escapism and pleasant romance, all rolled up into one neatly formal musical package. Yet how much of the impact of Chazelle’s film is to do with the choice of detailing on its wrapping paper?
Essentially La La Land is a boy meets girl story. The boy in question is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) a struggling jazz pianist, who dreams of owning his own jazz club, but has to make do with playing Christmas fare to the grazing hoards at a ridiculous tapas bar, managed by Bill (a brief cameo from J.K. Simmons, who was taken to an Oscar win by Chazelle in Whiplash). The girl is the budding starlet Mia (Emma Stone), who routinely suffers the tortures and indignities of the Hollywood auditioning and casting processes, but imagines herself one day in the august company of Hepburn or Bergman. Dreams of creativity are what unite these two characters, who have come to the city to try and realise those dreams, but are beginning to believe they will have to settle and compromise. Chazelle’s film is another entry in Hollywood’s long line of features that extol the virtue of never giving up on your dream. But what if your dreams of creativity stand opposed to your happiness as a couple?
Much has been made of Chazelle’s wide-ranging cine-literacy, as well as his own background as a jazz drummer. Mark Cousins, particularly, waxed lyrical in his February 2017 Sight and Sound column, entitled ’17 for ‘17’, about Chazelle’s acknowledgement of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), Djibril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki (1973) and Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999) as among the filmmaker’s favourite musicals (“I could have kissed his feet. If people making big films are watching movies like those, and thinking about cinema like that, then the cinephile religion is safe.”). La La Land is undoubtedly the work of a student of film, a cinephile with meticulously maintained crib sheets and lists: a little Casablanca (1942) here, some Hair (1979) there, a dash of the panache of An American in Paris (1951) wed to the dilution of relationship dissolution in New York, New York (1977) – more of which later. Chazelle even explicitly foregrounds this defining magpie trope by making the Griffiths Observatory, as seen in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a key returning location within his own film.
In its studied awareness of genre the film also justifies a self-reflexive approach to the musical, whilst simultaneously attempting to unsuccessfully head off accusations of a nostalgic harking back to a ‘golden age’. The film makes ideas of creative traditions vs creative innovations a bone of contention between Sebastian and his more successful musician friend Keith (played by actual musician John Legend, whose executive producer credit may explain the rather cynical placement of his musical output as a key element of the narrative). Sebastian’s embrace of ‘pure’ jazz is primarily a result of that musical form’s prizing of variation and improvisation. Thus, the jazz traditionalist is contradictorily a rebel, aware of their musical lineage, but never looking to play a song the same way twice. This could, and does, serve as an extended metaphor for what Chazelle is doing with the musical.
Visually the film is playing an extended riff on the title’s ideas of fantasy, delusion and self-absorption. This leads Chazelle and his DOP, Linus Sandgren, to pursue an approach to shot design that utterly privileges the lead performances of Gosling and Stone. Opening the film with a freeway-situated show-stopper seems like a bold formal innovation, but it is most noteworthy for the flatness with which it deploys Sandgren’s free-roaming camerawork. The dynamism of this sequence is more to do with the choreography of the camera’s movements, snapping on to action as it cuts into and across its visual field, rather than the choreography of the dance routines. Despite a mass array of performers, the equal of a Busby Berkley film, Chazelle doesn’t really locate any narratorial points of interest within the routines, until introducing his leads at the very end of the opening sequence. In this regard the opening routine has more in common with a music video or advert than it does with other musicals, it is unintegrated spectacle. That said it does manage to efficiently evoke the transition from film dramatic space to film fantastical space, the frustrating mundanity of a grid-locked freeway suddenly gives way to the joyous zeal of song and dance. Throughout the rest of the film this undefined fantastical space of the opening routine becomes the very tightly defined dream space of Mia and Sebastian, and their blossoming relationship.
When it comes to the central couple there is undoubtedly some chemistry between Stone and Gosling, which plays out particularly effectively in moments of visual comedy, such as the Chaplinesque intro to their first dance, or the way in which the couple initially, quite literally, bump into one another. Chazelle has taken the unusual approach of showcasing the dance steps and songbird skills of two actors whose range is fairly limited in both regards. I felt it actually gave the film a slightly endearing quality to see the two central performers work their way, very consciously, through a limited repertoire and range. Each star has their spotlight moment where they alone sing their hearts out, and as long as things remain at a surface level, in keeping with the Hollywood fantasia that Chazelle has crafted for them, then this love affair is quite adorable. However, deficiencies emerge when Chazelle’s ‘Fall’ section rolls upon us – the film is structured around the four seasons. There is a very deliberate swerve into heavier dramatic terrain within this section. The relationship is on the ropes, as both characters begin to pursue their creative dreams and ambitions with that little bit more vigour.
An impromptu romantic dinner reveals the first cracks in the relationship, and also demonstrates Chazelle’s heavy debt to Scorsese’s high-intensity musical New York, New York. Although never anywhere near the seething, hateful, horrendously aggrieved mess of that film’s deteriorating central relationship, the emergence of a dramatic underscore in this film’s hitherto light and frothy confections, feels awkwardly conceived of, at best. A substantial part of the blame must be shouldered by Gosling in this regard. Despite having learned jazz piano to lend authenticity to his music renditions – thus freeing up Chazelle to pursue much longer takes – Gosling’s performance is too monotone. Whereas Stone is an able comic performer who really brings aching depths to her dawning realisation that the couple can only really have their relationship or creative fulfilment, Gosling is all surface charm and pained superficiality, not a lot else. The disparity between performances is most pronounced in those rare domestic drama scenes in the Fall section. Stone gives a nuanced rendering of hurt, betrayal and disappointment, as ‘reality’ puts a pin prick in La La Land, but Gosling cannot or will not match her, looking somewhere between bored and constipated, with occasional voluble outbursts of frantic activity. Gosling’s character is never really seen to elude the fantastical delusions of La La Land, which may well be Chazelle’s point, but all that this does is make the film seem queasily unbalanced at its weightiest moments. A part of me sees this as a directorial decision, particularly as the sudden flip into more affected handheld camerawork occurs at precisely this point. But if this is the case, I also find myself asking why?
The instantly forgettable nature of the song lyrics is another harder cross to bear for a musical. With perhaps the sole exception of ‘City Stars’, sung by Gosling during the couple’s first dance dalliance, so many of the songs in La La Land have highly hummable tunes, but little memorable in the words department. When thinking about some of the most entertaining musicals from years gone by, the frantic wordplay of ‘Moses Supposes’ and the title song from ‘Guys and Dolls’ would be examples of just how rich and inventive the lyric sheet was in films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Guys and Dolls (1955). La La Land does not fare well by comparison, robbing the film of a crucial component of storytelling within the genre. It attempts to make up for this through a fond sense of familiarity with such films. But how to pay homage to classic Hollywood musicals when your choreography is a little pedestrian and your songs predominately unaffecting?
The climax to La La Land is one way, perhaps. A fantastic narrative loop is pursued in the final scene which works up, rather expertly, an emotional crescendo to a film that otherwise didn’t seem to have such a high point in it. Reprising the opening number of the film as a means of taking the narrative all the way back to Mia and Sebastian’s first brief encounter upon the freeway, Chazelle accelerates through a ‘what might have been’ dream within a dream, that is not only the most arresting piece of extended mobile camerawork in the entire film, but also manages to draw attention to an innovative aspect of the film itself. The scenes that have comprised the bulk of the film’s running time are shown to chronicle the overwhelming absences within the relationship. In the five minute reworking those absences are reversed and thus become staging posts on the way to Mia and Sebastian realising both their creative aspirations and the dream of a perfect future together. The fantastical film we have thus far sat through, is thus revised as a dream laid upon a fantasy, which manages to make the latter seem somehow less escapist and inconsequential. It is a bravura sleight of hand from Chazelle, and one that will undoubtedly tick all the preferred boxes on those Oscar ballot sheets, even if it left these musical-loving eyes and ears somewhat underwhelmed.