Okay, so La La Land. This movie has gotten so much attention and emerged as the film to beat for awards, so it’s impossible to just go in and watch it without preconceptions, and it’s kind of hard to just write about the film without actually writing about the OTHER writing about the film. But, persevere we must, for if not, something bad.
The short version is I think everyone should see it, because it’s good enough and it’s interesting. I, of course, have some problems with it, am vaguely annoyed by it, but mostly feel that the promise it showed only illuminated how much better it could have been.
So the director, Damien Chazelle, who is 31 [i.e. a child who knows nothing*], was interviewed by a starstruck Manohla Dargis in a piece called “La La Land Makes Musicals Matter Again” [which, btw, it does not, or rather: if you though musicals no longer mattered, it’s because you’re ignorant], and in this piece, he sums of what the movie feels like: He was watching classic musicals, thinking about the form, and thought: “’Oh my God, I’ve been sleeping on a gold mine.’” That is: here’s this wonderful form that is completely out of style… do it right, and you have a guaranteed success. Sort of like bringing the silent film back with The Artist. Do it half-decently, and it really stands out. And that was the main disappointment of the film: He seems to have thought that all he has to do is make a romantic technicolor musical, and everything else will take care of itself. No need to worry about the script, the story, the characters, the singing, the dancing, the music, the songs, having real showstoppers and real blowouts, because just doing a musical is unusual enough, and we can just coast by on that.
He did make the extremely canny decision to make it unsentimental, which pretty much saves it.
The characters are extremely thin. They’re also shallow, tired cliches. She’s an actress appalled by how poorly she’s treated and eager to be taken seriously. He’s a musician who loves real jazz and is disgusted by having to play pop, or jazz tainted by pop. There’s no problem with being thin archetypes in a musical, but they aren’t developed and don’t go anywhere interesting. He encourages her to write a play, so she quits her job and develops a one-woman play [with what money? While she’s living on what?]. He is fired from his job playing Christmas carols at a bar, and seems to find happiness as the pianist in a jazz combo, but he leaves that to sell out as the keyboardist in a jazz-disco band [why leave when he seemed to be happy?], and she apparently lives with him for months without them ever discussing that he’s making sell-out pop-jazz, so she’s shocked when she comes to see him live. The point is: a lot of the movie—in fact, kind of all of it—hinges on their professional lives, but those lives are barely scratched, and what there is filled in with hoary cliches. Their personal life is also only sketched, and that is the explicit, main content of the movie. We can follow that they moved in together by only seeing them, but what their life is like, what their relationship is like, we don’t know. Which becomes a huge problem at the end, when their professional and personal lives, and the lives they could have lived, are brought in for deep examination. It’s effective now—imagine how devastating it could have been if both areas had actually been developed.
As for the musical touches, I had two thoughts… One I had myself, which was something akin to: “If you’ve never heard Chopin, you might think George Winston was pretty good.” And two was expressed in a review of this film: “Chazelle knows wow to connote exuberance, but not how to convey it.” There are numerous moments of borrowed movie magic, and the insight of this film is that they haven’t been seen in a while—and they still work! But the fact is that they work a lot better when they have the support of the entire film behind them and are part of a unified whole [and are used for actual effect, not just as callbacks to previous films]. I watched everyone go through the motions, but rarely felt any real love or exuberance.
Throughout, the film seems a little afraid to go whole-hog and just BE a sentimental, emotional musical, just own it and go for it, as though it’s a little uncool and it’s a bit ashamed to really be wholeheartedly sincere like that. I get that the leads are not professional singers or dancers, which leads to most of the songs to have voices buried way down in the mix, and that the songs are not really big musical numbers, and also not very memorable… But you know, having great dancers and singers and wonderful songs really can make a movie explosive… but then we’d have to face that we have a real, actual musical and not a ironic, kinda-musical, and it would have to be an entirely different movie.
So throughout, you’re just watching a bunch of poses borrowed from other films, and they work! Only, they worked a lot better with some actual context. There are also techniques Chazelle borrows way too many times, like dimming all of the set lights except for the spot on the lead, which he does at least ten times. The musical number set in the planetarium begins, there are a few gestures, silhouettes against the stars, and suddenly it’s over. It never takes life and becomes genuinely transporting. If you’ve never seen Singin’ in the Rain, it might seem pretty good. If you have, it might be a welcome throwback. But it ain’t the same thing, by a long shot.
SPOILERS > > > So our two lovers have an arbitrary fight over nothing [she hadn’t realized that him being on tour will take him traveling for years—being an actress will also place her on set for months at a time, btw—and apparently this couple never, ever talk about what’s going on in their lives], and they break up. He encourages her to go for that last audition, and of course, she gets her big break [we wouldn’t even bother considering unsuccessful people, would we?] and it looks like they’ll get back together, but for no reason, they stay broken up. Then… well, here comes the ending, are you sure you’re ready?
Five years later! She has married someone else, is in a big house with a toddler, and apparently a successful actress. She goes into a jazz club, it’s his, and we go back to the moment they met, only this time we follow through their lives as if they’d stayed together. It’s a great idea! And… it’s stolen directly from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In that movie, we know at the end that, much as we loved their love story, they were wrong for each other, and it makes sense, sad as it may be, that it didn’t work out. Here, the vision she sees of their relationship-that-could-have-been looks exactly like the life she has, so you’re left to wonder why they couldn’t have been together, and why they broke up, and what the whole problem is. But then it’s over.
As I said, this bittersweet ending entirely saves the movie, because otherwise it would have been a straight-up romantic musical [which would have been fine] with a straightforward happy ending [which also would have been fine], but ending this way, it makes the movie as a whole seem a lot more deep and unconventional than it is. It’s effective—I cried, for sure—but imagine how effective it might have been if these two had gone through a relationship instead of a bunch of bullet points, and they had real reasons why they couldn’t be together. < < < SPOILER END
This morning I was reading reviews of this film by blown-away millennials who find that the film “sweeps you off your feet and breaks your heart at the same time and therein captures the terrible, wonderful power of love and ambition,” and I just think Gosh, imagine how you’d feel if you’d seen a good musical (and were capable of paying attention to it). If you watched Singin’ in the Rain and found it musty, irrelevant and old fashioned, that’s your fault, not the film’s. If you swoon over a shallow, tossed-together greatest hits of previous musical’s magic moments, well, you get what you deserve.