Review: La La Land (Dir. Damien Chazelle, 2016)

Damien Chazelle’s 2014 feature debut, Whiplash, think Full Metal Jacket within a musical conservatory, featured an obsessive jazz drummer and his pushy teacher. In his follow-up, La La Land, music is once again key as pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) attempts to earnestly preserve traditional jazz in downtown L.A. Across town – and yet destined to bump into each other at every possible turn – is barista and wannabe actress Mia (Emma Stone).

La La Land’s DNA is laced with nostalgia, a yearning for the past while attempting to carve out a future. There are nods to Singin’ in the RainAn American in ParisThe Umbrellas of CherbourgRebel Without a Cause, and even Mary Poppins dotted amongst the score and original songs penned by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Chazelle. The main theme and ensemble songs stand out, in particular the opening number. Another Day In The Sun is glorious, it alleviates a traffic jam on a stiflingly hot day, like the Everybody Hurts video only on prozac, and possibly breakfast alcohol. It pops with colour like an overlong GAP® commercial (not a criticism) and is a joy to behold. Sadly, the rest of the film doesn’t live up to that first five minutes. There are moments sure but it’s all rather sedate from then on, in spite of a couple of catchy riffs and melodies. The catchiest on the soundtrack i.e. the one I’m currently playing on repeat is John Legend’s Start A Fire.

Legend plays Keith, Sebastian’s one-time musical collaborator, they fell out over how they believed Jazz should be played. I’m with Keith – and his fabulous track – it needs to evolve. “You’re so obsessed with Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk—these guys were revolutionaries. How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You’re holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” Given a dubious script, it almost makes complete sense to learn that musician Legend ad-libbed this whole monologue. Similarly, Chazelle’s take on the Hollywood musical is just that too – traditional, safe; lacking in breadth or depth. It reminded me a bit of Gondry’s Mood Indigo in that respect.

Gosling makes for an accomplished jazz pianist, he’s not the greatest singer in the world and is no Gene Kelly but the dance numbers are lovely, reminiscent of those Cinemascope musicals of days gone by, only not as accomplished. You know how those sequences between Reynolds, O’Connor, Kelly et al were clearly rehearsed but yet still somehow felt spontaneous? There’s none of that here, everything is staged to within an inch of its life and it suffers for it. Especially the acting. In fact, I left the cinema wishing for more choreography (however contrived) as the acting fell so flat. Never have I seen Gosling and Stone quite so bland, I was expecting at least a little of the chemistry so evident in Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Kudos and fist-bumps to Stone though who does a tremendous amount, albeit tepidly, with a flimsy character. Mia has very little to say. Chazelle tends to rely on close-ups of facial expressions. It’s a delightful visage but for a two-hander, it starts to infuriate somewhat. Only near the end do we actually get to hear Stone belt out some lyrics to The Fools Who Dream, I understand the character’s earlier hesitation but a little passion in previous songs would not have gone amiss.

Visually, the film is beautiful. Mary Zophres’ costumes are stunning and the use of colour sublime, although some of the interior lighting choices are interesting. I did find it particularly fascinating that Mia and Sebastian’s sister Laura (a criminally underused Rosemarie DeWitt) are introduced in identical colours – and appreciated that by the end, when real life has taken over, with dreams fulfilled or not etc., these primary colours are muted and have almost disappeared. That’s one reason why I’d have to respectfully disagree with those who are pegging this film as one for “dreamers”, I think it’s one for realists, however battle-scarred they may be.

Understandably, audiences go doolally for Hollywood glitz and glamour, frequently gaga for Gosling and/or suckers for Stone. Hell, some even have a thing for musicals (I love them ordinarily). This, for all its visual aesthetics and occasional toe-tapping ditties, didn’t quite work for me…

Not my tempo.

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