La La Land (2016)

Dir. Damien Chazelle. Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend

Early in the film, Mia (Stone) has a pretty bad day. She gets cut off by a guy in an old car while she’s practicing a monologue she’s going to audition with. She’s late for the audition itself, has to rush out of her coffee shop job, and runs into a different guy carrying full coffees. The white blouse she should be wearing is compromised, and she’s the only redhead at the audition wearing a blue parka instead. The audition falls through. Hurt, sad, defeated, she collapses, face first, onto her bed while a wall-sized image of Ingrid Bergman smiles behind her. It’s not often that a movie finds a way to create a self-describing image, but La La Land, bless its heart, pulled it off.

La La Land is a nostalgia piece first and foremost, though it’s the kind of nostalgia piece which works best on people without any real familiarity with what they’re supposed to be nostalgic about. No movie is more similar to La La Land than The Artist, a film which would have been a simplistic silent flick nearly a century earlier. While we were getting wrapped up in Jean Dujardin’s ability to tap dance, we forgot about the remarkable technical innovation of a D.W. Griffith film, or the scything performances from people like Maria Falconetti, or the willingness to take on remarkable scenarios, like those inThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,The Man Who Laughs, or Metropolis. The Artist allowed its viewers (including a great many who vote on Oscars) to feel a connection, albeit a contrived and ahistorical one, to the great silent films back when silent films were a thing. I presume that La La Land has done something similar to many of its (award-voting) viewers.

The funniest scene in the film, and maybe the most engaging, takes place at a pool party in the springtime. Mia and Sebastian (Gosling) have met already, and it’s ended badly both times; Sebastian, who’s like Miles Teller in Whiplash except good-looking, has been a jerk both times. Mia sees him playing keyboard in an ’80s cover band for the party and instantly requests “I Ran…” While Gosling plays keytar as disdainfully as he can, recognizing that he’s been beaten, Stone goes into full lip-sync mode, squishing her features and singing along. It’s the part of the film which gives its stars a chance to sit back and bask most effectively in what they do best. Post-Notebook Gosling (The Place Beyond the Pines, Drive) is successful at being too cool for school but also being able to recognize what the humane thing to do is in a given situation. Someday, Stone won’t be America’s goofball sweetheart, but I’m not sure I want to be around when that isn’t the case. And in this scene, Sebastian, trying to be suave while wearing a red leather jacket and playing a keytar, realizes that he deserves this; Stone is essentially doing the same shtick she did on Fallon a couple years back. The two of them are charming, funny, enlivening. And they do have some chemistry; it’s hard not to like the two of them together, complementing one another as they do. Even their features balance each other! Gosling has that tall, rectangular face, and Stone has a wide, round one. I like the two of them together, but they are fundamentally miscast in anything which has “musical” in the description.

Neither one can sing. Neither one can dance. And this is where Chazelle and company manage to give the lie to the nostalgia which is at the center of a sadly hollow flick. Say what you want about the musicals which were studio tentpoles into the 1970s, but they didn’t make a habit of casting people who couldn’t sing and dance in them. White Christmas barely adheres as a movie, but Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney could sure as heckfire sing, and Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye were wonderful dancers. (You may also remember the title song.) Seven Brides for Seven Brothers should, by all rights, be too weird to live, but it’s hard not to be captivated by the magnificent dancing. I couldn’t hum the theme from La La Land for you tomorrow if you asked me to, and no one will huddle ’round the hearth to hear Ryan Gosling’s mumble or Emma Stone’s sadly thin voice. Their dancing is not precisely rudimentary, but the nameless extras in the first scene of the film would each be able to dance rings around them without breaking a sweat. In a musical, song and dance should advance the plot, build character, and be notable for the ability of the performers. La La Land sort of hits the first two, although the song and dance the two of them share at sunrise, which seems fated to be the most feted element of the movie, has no reason to exist other than “we’re doing a movie musical homage.” It comes up well short on the third count, though. Say what you will about Les Miserables, but everyone in that movie (excepting Russell Crowe, of course, who was so bad that The Last Five Years changed the lyrics in “Climbing Uphill” to accommodate that casting disaster) could sing their way out of a box. The only person who can do that in this movie is John Legend; ironically, he’s playing a musician who is supposedly murdering jazz. All in all, a movie musical should provide its own evidence as to why it should be a musical. In La La Land, the songs are anonymous, the singers couldn’t be picked out of a lineup of a group singing “Happy Birthday,” and the dancing is uninspired. So why is it a musical at all? (Pondering a film’s genre should not result, in most cases, in a koan.)

La La Land also takes a whole bunch of visual cues from other movies. That’s not notable; movies have been around a minute and, as I understand it, directors have seen other movies before. So it comes as no surprise that the film borrows the long, abstract, non-plot dance sequence from Singin’ in the Rain (which is the only interesting part of La La Land), and uses the bright colors associated with ’50s and early ’60s musicals, and Mia’s roommates shake their dresses like Rita Moreno in West Side Story. But there’s no point to any of it; it plays not as “homage,” whatever that means, but as copycatting. This is the film’s cardinal sin, even worse than not understanding why it is the genre it is: La La Land fails to do anything new, different, or interesting with the material it has appropriated.

By and large, I am in favor of recycled material. For all of the problems with Django Unchained, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Quentin Tarantino made a Western with an African-American lead. As I’ve written on this blog before, some of the richest material for retelling comes from Sirk melodramas. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul repurposes the substance of a movie like All That Heaven Allows by changing the age, nationality, and, in Ali’s case, the skin color of its characters while maintaining the color and mood which make All That Heaven Allows distinctive. Far From Heaven remains, for my money, one of the most underappreciated American films of the 21st Century; like Fassbinder, Todd Haynes sees a wealth of untapped ore in the melodrama and updates it with greater social consciousness. Far From Heaven addresses homosexuality and racism and interracial coupling in the luminous tones and overstated acting style of earlier melodramas which wouldn’t have touched those topics with a ten-foot pole.

La La Land makes only one small update. In the aforementioned Singin’ in the Rain riff, we get a sense of a different possibility. Five years after the major events of the film, Mia and Sebastian have the careers they want but no longer have one another. The Rain adaptation provides a way for us to see how things could have been different, how the two of them might have been able to keep one another and succeed in their chosen professions. That‘s the kind of change that these updates on classic genres have to embrace to be effective, but in its two hour runtime, only the few minutes given to this alternate track change how we’d view an established musical. What a shame that the rest of the film fails to recognize the vast possibilities in an update of the musical genre.

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