I am having difficulty remembering when was the last time a film refused to let me go, kept me returning to its characters, their pain and joy long after the final credits. La La Land is now half-way through this year’s awards season and the picture keeps receiving all the prizes (see here), which only feels justified and beautiful, like watching Mo Farah accept another Olympic medal.
If retold as libretto, La La Land is a common enough story that has happened a few hundred times over the last year only. It is not what, it is how — the tap-dancing devil is in the details, in the sincerity of dreaming, in the bitterness of repeated rejection, in the emotional complexity and precision with which the film approaches its topics. The script can be commended for giving just enough time to every scene, and never too much; yet, allowing each episode to ripen. A couple of strokes are enough to suggest the whole picture: the stained leaky ceiling one cannot afford to repair, the corridor of identically-dressed women all auditioning for the same part, the beginning of a familiar tune accidentally overheard.
Set in L.A., that dream factory, La La Land acknowledges classic cinema, giving a nod to Singin’ in the Rain here, to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg there. Mia (Emma Stone) points out to Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) the window behind which Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman looked out in Casablanca — of course she would know, working at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, living in a room with a wall-wide Bergman poster. The couple go on to have their first date at a cinema theatre, watching Rebel Without a Cause while we are watching them learn to hold hands. There is no escape from the layered presence of Hollywood, with its seemingly multiple takes on life, as shown in the film finale.
Los Angeles is not just the setting: it determines the nature of the film. From the spectacular opening when a crowded highway becomes the stage for an ensemble number — confidently stating that this picture is, indeed, a musical — to the multiple auditions that Mia goes through, to the in-built references. As the main characters walk through movie set streets, we are reminded of another couple trying to make it in Hollywood: Joe and Betty from Sunset Boulevard. (I also cannot help but wonder if the scenic spot from La La Land — see the poster above — is near Mulholland Drive, bringing to mind a darker version of ‘trying to make it in Hollywood’.)
Damien Chazelle, the director whose previous work was critically acclaimed Whiplash (2014), did something unusual and wonderful. He invented a new language for a dying genre, an accomplishment echoed in the character arch of Keith (John Legend) in La La Land. The script for the film was written in 2010, started while Chazelle was a student at Harvard and continued after his move to L.A. For years afterwards, no studio would finance the project, finding ‘an original contemporary musical with no familiar songs to build off a pre-existing fan base’ too risky. As a side note, it is that attitude that is responsible for the production of Frozen 2.
It took the success of Whiplash for Chazelle’s original feature to be recognised as a possibility. Mia’s shout of ‘Maybe I’m not good enough!’ in one of the pivotal scenes of La La Land is rooted in personal experience and frustration which break the fourth wall. The doubt whether you have the talent, the persistence, the luck to make it big is both intimate and universal, and the film does justice to portraying that emotion. Although the visuals are dream-like and the style is playful, there is nothing ‘easy’ or ‘safe’ about the core of La La Land, or the history of its production.
The premise is as follows:
Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress who is working as a barista. Sebastian (Gosling) wants to found his own jazz club, but in the meantime is playing Jingle Bells at a restaurant. By the way, did you notice how I introduce them dream-first, reality-second? That is because I am a writer who doubles as an administrator by day.
The film is a series of meetings and partings between Mia and Sebastian, as their relationship and careers progress. What is especially interesting about the language of La La Land, is that the transforming moments tip the narrative from realistic to theatrical without breaking the flow. If, for example, in Chicago, or Grease, or Moulin Rouge! a plot development is followed by a musical number delivering the same information we just heard but via song and dance, in La La Land the metamorphosis happens through the numbers. Mia’s final audition and the epilogue scene are the best examples of that.
The result of this approach is the freshness, immediacy of the film. There is no repetition. The opening scene of La La Land was shot as a single six-minute take, leaving the audience breathless with the energy of the performance and the spectacle of camera work. Although accomplished actors, Stone and Gosling are not professional dancers, nor, during their training, was the emphasis on the technique. Mandy Moore, the film’s choreographer, strived for emotion and achieved it.
In an interview given in September 2016, as his work screened at Telluride Film Festival, Chazelle said, ‘I find it a lot more involving when I can see something that’s real and not tinkered with… That is how the sky looks. That is Ryan and Emma dancing. Those are their voices, their feet.’ La La Land chooses sincerity over perfection, improvisation over scrupulous fidelity — as is in the very nature of jazz.
Along with the multitude of award nominations and critical acclaim, La La Land has received a number of criticisms, ‘from thin female characterisation to a white-saviour complex on jazz to an uneven sound mix’. The angriest article I have come across was published by Observer and titled ‘La La Lame: The Infuriating Success of 2016’s Most Whitewashed Film’.
It should be acknowledged that La La Land is currently competing against such films as Moonlight and Fences. At a time when racial insensitivity and xenophobia have been repeatedly shown by those in power, preferring a romantic musical about a white couple to a serious drama with Black characters can seem like a slight. As La La Land is an homage to the cinematic culture of previous decades and is drenched in nostalgia, it can be perceived differently by people who see those previous decades as a time of distinct social inequality which is now admired through rose-tinted glasses.
That said, claiming that La La Land is an example of whitewashing is a stretch. Damien Chazelle, the film’s director and writer, was trained as a jazz musician before focusing on cinema. That the film’s main male character happens to be both white and a Charlie Parker aficionado is largely rooted in the biographical facts about that character’s creator. That was true. That happened.
My personal opinion is that intentions and severity of the topic do not a good film make. Spotlight, last year’s Best Picture, was an uninspired procedural, while its contender The Big Short was a brilliant celluloid high. It is difficult to even name, let alone praise, a recent musical comedy-drama that was not also an animated feature, and La La Land may be a marker of the genre’s revival.
What comes to mind as a response to some criticisms of the film is a quote by Dita Von Teese: ‘You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.’ La La Land is breathtakingly wonderful at what it is and very bad at what it’s not.
It is the third time Stone and Gosling co-star in a film (following Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad), and I hope we get to see many more examples of that star partnership. They both can be charming and funny, and dazzling, and ugly, and go back from one state to another with the ease of breathing. La La Land gave them an opportunity to shine, and so they did.
Musically the film can be compared to a concept album that produces no hits but work as a whole. I have been humming ‘City of stars…’, yet I had no recollection of the rest of the score a minute after the film was finished. That is not to say La La Land leaves you unaffected. To quote someone else, ‘I could tell you in conversation the exact frame — not moment, but visual frame — when the three closest people to me in the cinema all began to slow-cry. And I was wincing, trying not to do the same.’
Filmography: La La Land, directed by Damien Chazelle. United States, 2016. (IMDb)
Current album: John Legend, Darkness and Light
Current book: Kate Beaton, Hark! A Vagrant
Current TV series: Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 1 (1989)