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What do you mean you don't like jazz?

La La Land
(2016)

(SPOILERS) La La Land is very likeable, which is surely why it has been embraced so rapturously, as if it represents the second coming of Gene Kelly. It isn’t that, but it’s backward-looking take on old-school musicals, with a twist of sobriety, has made it seem fresh and distinctive in an increasingly homogenous (mainstream) landscape. It does make me wonder, though, whether director Damien Chazelle has a one-track mind. He can make a film about anything. As long as it involves jazz.


And additionally, when positioned alongside Whiplash, it’s suggestive of an unsettlingly uncompromising temperament. Whiplash justified its teacher’s extreme methods in its final reel; wanton cruelty maketh the purer artist, we are told, despite having seen all we needed hitherto to convince us that such behaviour is entirely detrimental to the nurturing of talent. I conceded at the time that maybe this was down to lack of judgement on its maker’s part, that Maybe Chazelle intended to leave his audience with more of an open debate than he does”, but in light of La La Land, I’d lean heavily to there being no mistake there. In both movies, the ends justify the means, along as the ends are success. So Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are not destined to live happily ever after, not together at any rate, but in forsaking potential bliss they gain what they have always dreamed of: fame and artistic fulfilment, respectively.


Working backwards from that, within the parameters of the generally uncynical genre of the musical, Chazelle leaves himself some curiously gaping potholes to traverse. Because he’s left with a love story in which the lovers aren’t really, not wholly, not convincingly, that into each other, and so there isn’t really any great disappointment in their eventual not to be-ness. It also means there isn’t any great flight of fantasy during their musical outpourings, certainly between the opening number (of which they aren’t a part, and which I had difficulty making out what Another Day of Sun was even about until the near the end, which isn’t very good form; either that, or speakers in the cinema weren’t doing the business) and the quite dazzling, “what-might-have-been” montage that concludes the movie.


Maybe that’s intentional, though, reflecting Mia and Sebastian’s lack of sincerity? That’s a charitable take, certainly, and I couldn’t help but notice how the choreography of the leads, Gosling in particular, is on the stiff side. The Coen brothers delivered a musical number in Hail, Caesar! that was no more than a side dish, but displayed, deftness, sleight of hand and a vibrant wit lacking even in the best of what’s on offer here. Not that La La Land isn’t funny, but I didn’t find it as spirited or as invested in the genre as, say Woody’s Everybody Says I Love You. The manner in which, for the main body of the piece, the songs shuffle in and out or linger on the side-lines, without much fanfare, reluctant to intrude too overtly on the drama of the relationship, or let things really take off, suggests something else; a quality of “musical realism” (is that a phrase?), perhaps, closer to the kind of approach we see in diegetic musicals like The Commitments than a full-blown fantasy?


It also means that, because they’re restrained, those numbers feel more rehearsed, less free and expansive than in your typical musical (admittedly, I’m no aficionado of the genre, so am happy to stand corrected). The segues too feel a little on the studied side at times, the lights lowering around the subject(s) at the appropriate moment on each occasion. But the songs themselves are extremely catchy, and for all that I’ve noted the choreography being limited, Chazelle is light years ahead of the go-to-guy for musical adaptations, Rob Marshall, in staging, cinematography and editing. Indeed, if La La Land wins the Best Picture Oscar, it will at least do something to displace the stink of the last musical to win, Marshall’s Chicago.


Gosling and Stone have previous movie form of course, flourishing in Crazy, Stupid, Love, less so in Gangster Squad (but then, no one was done any favours there). A number of reviews have noted their singing isn’t up to scratch, but as someone who enjoyed the very variable performances in the aforementioned Everyone Says, I can’t say their timbres really put me off. Mind you, unless someone is actually tone deaf, I’d probably come away nodding, “Yeah, they were fine.” The main thing here is the chemistry, and their natural charisma as performers. 


If there’s a problem, aside from a fizzled romance that is a fait accompli, it’s one of which Stone is the unfortunate bearer. Chazelle may be repeating himself with Sebastian’s all-excluding jazz obsession, but at least it’s a strong through line. He’s a sufficiently proficient pianist, but his dream isn’t of great fame, it’s of a venue where the form can be allowed free expression. And through necessary compromise (to find the funds to achieve that goal) he achieves it. It’s a very specific, heartfelt intent, the expression of an artistic soul.


In contrast, Stone’s character is rather empty-headed. There’s almost a sense that Chazelle, having fixed on what he really wanted for his male character, settled on the most rote, “That’ll do” target for her. So, she’s an aspiring actress in Hollywood, and she wants to be a writer, so she just is a writer; presto, she flourishes a one-woman play in which she acts. And is spotted. And success is asssured. There’s no path or mountain to climb, and her trajectory is entirely generic. That Mia doesn’t completely flounder is entirely down to Stone’s charm and expressive frog eyes. There’s one song (Audition/The Fools Who Dream) arising from Mia being asked to tell a story at an audition, and all she can come up with is her aunt getting wet in Paris and wanting to do it again, the theme of following one’s dream, and I was left thinking, “That, the most moribund of all Hollywood themes, got you the gig?”


All that said, I was frequently most impressed and taken by Chazelle’s confident telling of scenes distinct from the musical life blood; Mia taunting Sebastian as he sacrifices his dignity to an ‘80s cover band is much more surefooted than the subsequent song as they walk to their cars. And then there’s the standout passage in which he comes home from touring and admits he has done what he has done because he thinks that’s what she wants him to do (joining John Legend’s very slightly cheesy, populist band); it’s one of the high points of the picture.


And, of course, Epilogue is near-sublime. If the rest of the movie had the breath-taking flourish of that final number, La La Land would be an instant classic. While, on the one hand, I genuinely appreciated that the picture’s ending chose not to opt for the conventional route, that it was more resonant that way, it also led to the nagging feeling that this was a very calculated conclusion, and that there’s something cumulatively ruthless about Chazelle’s worldview, something showing through the colourful trappings and sympathetic protagonists. But I look forward to his next effort, a science fiction yarn in which Louis Armstrong becomes the first jazz musician to set foot on the Moon.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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