La La Land

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.

*Sue me.

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13 thoughts on “La La Land

  1. I think this is spot-on. It’s strange to see a movie be so ambitious and so half-conceived at the same time; not to mention a movie that borrows so heavily from classic musicals while simultaneously refusing to be one. I was fascinated but not satisfied.

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    • Thanks Dave… did you know that I’m in Chicago, too? A quote from another review of this film sums up what I took paragraphs to say: “Derivative in the way that things are derivative when they have no real knowledge of or even maybe affection for the things from which they ostensibly derive.”

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      • Sort of like, this is the kind of thing you’d make if you’d never seen an actual musical film the whole way through, but you *had* watched YouTube clips of what a cracked.com listicle said were the Top Ten Moments In Musical Film.

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  2. WOAH! Harsh words! I was feeling a little sheepish about hating on this film after it clearly moved so many, but the more I talk to people [usually of a certain age] I find that many of them HHHHHHHHHHHATE it.

    Today I read a thing where Ryan Gosling said they all watched Singin’ in the Rain every day on set and I thought “Gosh, and you didn’t learn a thing from it!”

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    • Loved it, and I won’t apologize for that. (Someone had to say it). I actually despised Chazalle’s name-making movie, “Whiplash”, for being almost completely ignorant of the music scene it covered, and I was prepared to hate this one as well, after all of the hype–but every detail felt accurate to me, as a lifelong musician-on-the-road, right down to the plate of sad sandwich wraps on the table in Gosling’s band’s dressing room. If nothing else, the astonishing performance of Emma Stone, whose emotional liquidity and Liza Minnelli-expressive eyes are almost too painful to watch at times, cancels out all reservations. She nails the score’s one great song, “Audition”, which tells us, as the whole movie does, that we must celebrate those foolish, frustrating, maddening artists, who follow the songs in their own heads, to the bewilderment of ordinary people. The sequence tells us something of why musicals stay potent–it says that song and dance are frivolous, or frilly, or disposable. They are acts of defiance.

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      • I also HATED Whiplash. So the teacher is a completely psychotic, impacable Michael Myers of sadistic jazz instructors? Agreed re Emma Stone’s performance, loved the brief tears in her eyes when Ryan insults her. And yes, she lets touches of absolute existential horror cross her face. As for the movie… maybe [as F. Fane observes below] I’m just not part of that world to understand the accuracy…

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  3. I wrote a huffy dissent that was too big to go through. Will try again, maybe in bites.

    I largely loved this movie. It nailed both the tenor of a particular city and of being a young creative aspirant in it. Many of the character turns Scott cocks an eye at above raised a flag for me not because they’re dubious, but because they’re frighteningly, first-person accurate. Reservations that perhaps personal experience was being flattered went away as the vinegar (present even in the very first scene) became stronger throughout. LLL’s gloss isn’t just to please the senses; as does the city, it’s putting the very best face on an ecosystem geared around the paradox that Dreams Are So Important But Yours Are Almost Certainly Not. Difference from the city being that the movie acknowledges that joy and inspiration must be scraped up, worked for, and defended.

    Which leads into saying, I don’t understand the perspective that this movie is an ironic kinda-musical. Not only do I feel it’s quite lived-in and heartfelt, but it’s so unlike anything we’ve seen in a while (more on that on another post, maybe) that it can’t exist without passion and determination. The sausage factory 2017 isn’t hospitable for noncommittal riffs on a bygone genre, and in this environment the labor to bring LLL into existence must rule out the sort of vague detachment implied.

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    • Frankie! That’s the best, most understandable defense of this movie I’ve seen so far. Particularly your line about “dreams are important but not yours,” which makes so much sense after NYC’s “There’s so much going on, but none of it is accessible to you” So… maybe it’s an LA thing? And a creative business thing [as S. Zumbrun above observes]. I’d love to read your longer defense if you still have it.

      However, I still think there are objective flaws, as detailed above. Are you saying they’re accurate because LA creative aspirants DON’T talk to each other in relationships? DON’T realize that being a touring musician takes you on the road for long periods? I also feel like the opening number really had nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but at the same time I couldn’t make out the lyrics because the voices were buried so far down in the mix.

      I also still disagree on the “ironic kinda-musical” point, but could only repeat what I said above; the musical sequences did NOT dazzle me, the gestures and tropes seemed empty and borrowed, and overall it just seemed afraid to really go for it. And I still don’t see the difference between the final “what might have been” and what was. But I’m totally open that it may be an LA thing and am ready to hear more. Thanks for writing.

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      • Hey, you are welcome, and sincere thanks for the compliment. Much to volley back, so I’m going to shoot from the hip for speed. Those original chunks-o-text are gone, but some stuff that didn’t get rewritten were some of the character motivations. Retorting to specific points felt bratty, but here’s one: Mia’s expecting Seb’s life with the band to be the way the music industry used to be, when a hit act toured in support of record sales; it’s not til Seb’s surprise return that she grasps that touring is now ongoing (b/c the money now stems from concert sales rather than albums).

        And, yes, she is ignorant of that reality and perhaps too short-sighted/self-involved to get her ducks in a row as far as where the relationship is going. But – and I think you’ll agree, because you allude to age a few times in the review – she’s YOUNG. She skipped college and struck out by herself to break into an industry where she (and practically everyone at her level) is demeaned and rejected on the reg, and suddenly this attractive guy (whose playing strongly resonated with her emotionally before they ever spoke) becomes taken by her AND supports her artistic/career pursuits? As she’s 22, I had no problem accepting that their first several months together were heady enough (and that she’s severely occupied by goals she had long before meeting him) that she’s going to let the good times roll until she’s forced to consider less-than-idyllic realities. Judging by your reviews’ mentioning certain cultural touchstones at certain times of life, you and I are about the same age. But I’m kind of arrested; I might be more easily susceptible to dilemmas that are nonissues to contemporaries with more mature emotional tools. For whatever reason, it was easy for me to attach myself to her (and Seb’s) flaws.

        BTW, thanks for mentioning the opening number mix. I thought my cinema might have had the wrong sound system channeled for the first reel – but maybe it’s a source issue?

        If the musical numbers didn’t dazzle you, no arguing with that. For me, I felt that while they didn’t necessarily have that dynamite professional singing and dancing of past classics (or – to beat a dying horse – of people’s recollections of past classics), the song and dance and design did convey info and emotions in a unusual and heightened way. In fact, one thing that I liked was that Gosling and Stone weren’t musical powerhouses; made it much easier for me to buy the musical numbers as extensions of their characters’ personalities. For sake of comparison, think of Justin Timberlake playing Gosling’s part. I suspect his singing and dancing would be stronger, but the story would get overtaken by “Gosh, look how supertalented that performer is!” – that irritating poke found in, say, many blah movies built around a Great Acting Performance. I’m also charmed that they took a shot; Cyd Charisse killing a dance number is incredible, but Emma Stone pulling off one packs a punch of its own.

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  4. One common criticism of this movie charges that it references too much, thereby conjuring memories of sources this movie pales against. Can’t argue with the feelings invoked within any particular viewer. Yet I think Scott’s right that these borrowings work in this new context – with Scott it seems that he’s not offended by the sampling per se but that it’s used to shallower ends.

    Other folks seem to be taking it to extremes. One critic thought Gosling’s momentary swing around a lamppost was worthy of dissing in her review, with a “You’re not Gene Kelly and this ain’t Singin in the Rain” sneer. Well … he’s not and it ain’t, but neither owns lamppost swinging. Kids do it. Zoo animals do it. The odd adults who have never made a connection to SITR do it. If one can’t watch a second of twirl – or a color scheme, or a costume, or a title card, etc – without being so helplessly derailed into past viewing experiences, maybe the problem isn’t what’s presented onscreen. Dock the movie like Scott does – by what the movie is – instead of showcasing your ability to be overwhelmed by your own cineliteracy. Which, it should be noted, is how 99% of the world is going to experience any film.

    And while I don’t agree that the movie is little more than a warmed-over compendium, I wouldn’t have claws out for it if it were. Sampling is prevalent in our culture, and the works being homaged in LLL aren’t common currency today. To me the strongest cinematic influences on LLL are Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Young Girls of Rochefort; these progenitors haven’t been hidden, and aren’t being detracted from. If anything, they’re a smidgen more in the public consciousness now.

    Speaking of Cherbourg … SPOILERS … while Guy and Genevieve do accidentally remeet at the finale, there’s no what-could-have-been addressed. Maybe it was mixmastered in from another movie; formal antecedents are clearly SITR, The Band Wagon … maybe American in Paris? Point being, I suspect some of the knocks on LLL for not living up to its forebears stem from LLL not living up to critics’ cherished memories of the forbears … which is not quite an apples to apples comparison (and admittedly kind of mean and pyrrhic to suggest.) Musicals are special, and rare. I totally get why enthusiasts who don’t go for this one might want to be gatekeepers. But musicals are varied too: One Hour with You is not Gold Diggers of 1933 is not The Sound of Music is not Fame. The suggestion that LLL somehow doesn’t qualify is baffling – particularly when leveled by people saying it’s too derivative.

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    • I think it may be a bit of a tonal thing… for me, it came to the director’s “sitting on a gold mine” comment and the feeling that he felt that all he had to do was make an old-timey romantic musical [i.e. not a crappy contemporary musical like Chicago] and he’d be all set. I personally don’t mind that he includes references… they’re homages, but also show that he’s done his homework… but I came away with the feeling that what he got from the old musicals was the superficial gesture and not the deep understanding of movie fantasy and how it can be used to explore levels of consciousness.

      BUT I am completely open that I may be missing how he is actively capturing the LA scene, as you pointed out in your comment. And it is quite possible that he is very artfully weaving a modern cynicism into the form of the old musicals in a way that just doesn’t read for me [although that doesnt explain some of the other critics]. For example, it bugs me that the movie never really goes over the top in a way that even Xanadu does, but… maybe that’s the point? Maybe what I read as the distanced, ironic kinda-musical aspect of it is what makes it crystallize the millennial creative aspirant experience.

      Also 1) I appreciate your carefully avoiding blaming my review but just be aware you are certainly free to violently disagree with me [plus I’m a bit of a masochist] and 2) LLL cleaned up the Globes and we know it’ll win all the Oscars, so most are clearly on your side. xoxo

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      • Yeesh – I haven’t seen the “sitting on a gold mine” comment, but from the way it sounds here, it makes me glad that I avoid publicity and reviews before I check a film out. Very much like what you’re saying about a musical exploring different levels of consciousness; helps me understand what others are missing, as well as the connote/convey exuberance distinction. Maybe LLL’s musical quotient works for me because I see it as bringing magic stemming from the characters in the face of an environment where magic is dissected and lustre removed – but that’s definitely not the same as the go-to-11 effect of a Xanadu.

        Typing all this also makes me realize that perhaps when other people aren’t dazzled by the vocals or the dancing, I’m letting the filmmaking pick up the slack. I remember in the opening scene, thinking to myself Holy shit, is this one take? Had a similar reaction to the Someone in the Crowd number; don’t remember impressive dancing there (though there was that ridonkulous roof dive), but remember the camerawork.

        I try to write carefully, but I’m not attempting to “go easy” on you. Like everyone who comes here, I respect your sharing what you get out of a movie, and that doesn’t dissolve when it doesn’t confirm my thoughts. Trust me, if you were expressing your points the way that the aforementioned other critic had, I’d either challenge you on it or simply stay out of the ring. I’m not a violent guy. But if you’re looking to have that masochism scratched, I will oblige: Hey, you actually LIKED Patrick Wilson’s tired Elvis impression in Conjuring 2? Are you INSANE, Telek?

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