Directed by Damien Chazelle.
La La Land is haunted by the ghosts of older, better films. It has its engaging moments of independent life, but too often what’s happening on screen evokes the memory of something better. The title sequence takes place on a freeway flyover in a traffic jam – setting the LA scene with a vengeance. One woman starts to sing, gets out of her car and begins to dance, others follow and soon there’s a big production number happening. Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) is caught behind the car of Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress studying a script for an audition. It’s a “meet cute” that sets up the movie’s main plot tension, two people drawn together even as their ambitions and talent pull them apart. It sets up the ambient theme of the relation between Los Angeles and its fantastic shadow twin, La La Land.
It also evokes memories of the opening of Jacques Demy’s 1967 musical, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, with one disqualifying difference. It’s expertly filmed, the dancing is sprightly, but the music is entirely forgettable. Demy had a fine composer in Michel Legrand; Chazelle has Justin Hurwitz, who has been massively nominated and awarded for this outstanding contribution to screen muzak.
Mia is a barista in a movie-lot café and shares an apartment with three other women all seeking to break into movies – shades of Stage Door (1937). They sing and dance with her, skilfully covering her modest ability, and then they disappear from the movie. Indeed, there are only a couple of significant supporting roles in the movie, which must be carried almost in its entirety by Gosling and Stone. J.K. Simmons, whom Chazelle used in Whiplash, makes a brief appearance as a bullying nightclub owner and John Legend is amiably bland as a musician buddy of Sebastian’s.
Fortunately, Gosling and especially Stone are up to the task and if they are only mediocre singers this has not been a problem in many other musicals. Sprechgesang worked very well for Demy in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, one of the inspirations for La La Land. But on the topic of inspiration, Sara Preciado has produced a compilation of La La Land references :
I’m not sure about Boogie Nights, but you get the drift.
We’re given to understand that Mia is a competent actor; after the usual difficulties she finally gets a breakthrough audition and it’s onward and upward from there. Sebastian’s arrogant devotion to jazz is more problematic however. Is he actually talented? In a nightclub he meets an old friend, Keith (Legend), who urges him to join his modern jazz fusion group. When he finally does so, the group is wildly successful, but it’s obvious that Sebastian is still unsatisfied. We see him performing on stage, playing keyboard with one hand in his pocket. It’s a telling moment, and indeed the music is pretty dull.
I wonder if Chazelle is showing his hand here. In Whiplash he treats jazz as a higher calling, requiring great personal sacrifice. The jazz club scenes in La La Land are filmed in a highly respectful manner, as if we are expected to think this is the real stuff. Meanwhile, “Someone in the Crowd”, “Another Day of Sun”, “Waiting for the Call” and “City of Stars” roll by like musical styrofoam. And if you’ve seen the movie and can’t tell which of those songs doesn’t actually exist, I rest my case.
Despite my reservations, La La Land is a well made film. The cinematography is expert, the bright production design catches the right mood, and a scene between Sebastian and Mia across a table where they begin to realise their ambitions are forcing them apart brings out the best in Gosling and Stone. The final scene attempts something prodigious, and almost works.
La La Land is a romantic musical drama that is true enough to itself not to confect a happy ending. In this genre one thinks of A Star is Born, West Side Story and a number of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, but the ending of La La Land is directly inspired by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
In that film the two lovers, Guy and Geneviève have been forced apart by circumstance, but meet again several years later. Guy now owns the service station he always dreamed of, and he and his wife and child are getting ready for Christmas; it’s a snowy evening, and Geneviève pulls up to the pumps. She is now a rich woman, and is accompanied by her daughter – and Guy’s. They recognise each other, there is an awkward and pained conversation, and she leaves. Everything that might have been, everything that is lost, drift like the snowflakes in the air between them, as Legrand’s beautiful theme rise on the soundtrack.
When Mia, now a famous actress with her own family, enters the jazz club that Sebastian had dreamed of owning, he is at the piano. Her looks up and their eyes meet. He turns to play, and a fantasy sequence begins. It’s reminiscent of the long fantasy sequences in Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris, but with a difference. It starts with Sebastien stepping into a movie-set cityscape in which he meets Mia. The fantasy revisits events from their relationship, but this time the events which ended with them apart end with them staying together. Finally they sit down in the dark together and watch a home movie of their happy domestic life raising a family. There is no Gene Kelly here but the sequence still works. It’s Sebastien’s romantic vision of what might have been had ambition not pulled them apart.
What’s missing is any sense that what they have lost really mattered. It’s”follow your dreams” whatever the cost and there is no cost. At least in Whiplash Chazelle showed that obsessive ambition does have a cost. In La La Land ambition is endorsed and wrapped in a pretty package, but never questioned.
As she and her husband leave, Mia and Sebastian exchange rueful little smiles – “We both got what we really wanted, too bad about us, right?”. The ending of Umbrellas is intensely bitter-sweet, that of La La Land is insipid. Of course it will win the Oscar, because this is the kind of movie the Oscars are for. Its slickly crafted nostalgia recalls The Artist (2011), a black-and-white silent which also, but less predictably, pleased the Academy.
The movie does have its comic moments, and the musical numbers have their pastel charm, as this clip displays: