You never know. That’s sort of become my mantra. With my “reading-all-my-books” project, I’ve had a poor record of guessing which books I’d like, and even seeing classic movies, while I can guess that I’ll like them, I’m often surprised by them. (As in “I wasn’t expecting that sort of experience.”) But that can cut both ways, and there’s a lot of pressure on the guy (Damien Chazelle) who made one of my favorite films—if not my favorite—of 2014, Whiplash to hit it out of the park in his sophomore effort, a musical no less!
And the opening of La La Land had me worried. It’s a lot of what I don’t like about modern musicals (when I’m unfortunate enough to see a number from one): Sort of bland, sort of generic, a reasonable set-up, surely, but with the over-produced vocal style that makes it so clear how fake the whole thing is. I mean, obviously The King and I and Singin’ in the Rain are fake. But those people (or the people dubbing them, heh) could stand on a stage and project something like the sounds you hear on screen.
When a crowd of people standing on an open freeway sound like they’re whispering in your ear, well, it just alienates me. It might be because of my college education, in which I was exposed to a ton of live (unamplified) music, or it might more likely just be some idiosyncratic aesthetic quirk, but the effect is to leave me utterly cold.
Thereafter, however, the songs are mostly between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and the intimacy makes the whole effect work, not least because of Chazelle’s deft technique and unabashed affection for the city, the business, and the spirit behind it all, but also because Stone and Gosling are endearingly offbeat.
Gosling, even when he’s heartthrobby (Gangster Squad, Crazy, Stupid, Love.) has an element of the unusual, which shines in his weirder roles whether lovable (Lars and the Real Girl, The Nice Guys) or menacing (Drive, Only God Forgives), but here we have a nice mix of intense oddness that is both lovable and a little menacing, as Gosling plays Sebastian, a guy who lives for restoring a long-despoiled L.A. club to its former jazz glory.
Pure jazz, he assures us. And, as a musician, I can think of no more oxymoronic phrase as “pure jazz”. But he’s talking about that sort of masturbatory “who cares what the audience thinks?” stuff that was represented so well in Whiplash, and most of the time accurately reflects an indifference if not outright hostility to the listener.
That’s neither here nor there, since this is a story about passion and improbable dreams, and his, certainly, is an improbable dream.
Stone, meanwhile, is a struggling actress like tens of thousands of others, particularly unsuccessful (like tens of thousands of others), and in the inevitable hookup, we get a kind of reverse Star Is Born scenario, where he sells out (i.e. achieves commercial success) which results in contempt (rather than jealousy) and she gives up and, as my aptly-named Twitter pal @JulesLaLaLand points out, this is more Umbrellas of Cherbourg than Singin’ in the Rain.
But it’s still, at heart, an affirmation for the creative effort, for the improbable dreams, and (in a scene that reminded me very much of Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris) ultimately used to an emotionally effective gut-punch of an ending. An ending which, whatever its larger intentions were, also works as a sort of apologetic for Hollywood marriage and divorce.
I didn’t love it as much as Whiplash because, to me, the 2014 film was just pitch-perfect at every step and a dead-on representation of that sort of insane musical pedagogy, but this film is much more ambitious, much trickier and a good omen for future Chazzelle films. This is a unique movie, despite having ten times the budget of the last one, and there had to be all kinds of struggles with the studio to get it out the way it is.
Improbably, this has paid off with a $100M+ box office that may ultimately put it in the top 20 films of 2016, so that’s also a good omen. The Boy, who is not especially inclined to love musicals, was pleased. The Flower, who is on a serious Technicolor kick, and in a very judgmental mood regarding the limited color palette of todays’ films, was also mightily pleased by what she saw as homages to the great technicolor musicals of the past.
High praise indeed.