Thursday, January 12, 2017

La La Land

Probably a few spoilers here, so don't read this if you haven't seen the movie.

I see La La Land has won a bunch of awards in the Golden Globes: Best Actor and Actress, Best Musical (not hard, since there are barely any others around), Best Director, Best Original Score (interesting category to win, I'd have thought), and finally, Best Screenplay. O...kay. Plainly La La Land pleased the people who nominate and vote for the Golden Globes, and it's pleased a lot of other people too, but...

It starts off brilliantly with a one take (or at least, so it seems) dance sequence set on the freeway, the drivers of cars marooned in a traffic jam taking part in a hugely exciting dance amongst the cars (and on top of them and over them). It’s so extraordinarily well choreographed and timed that you feel set up for a really good musical. Curiously it has very little to do with the rest of the story.

Not long after that a quartet of women who share the same flat, including the heroine, Mia, (Emma Stone), have an equally well filmed song and dance around their apartment, the camera following through the doors and openings without a hitch. And then there was also an exuberant party dance in which guys threw themselves into a swimming pool - filmed partly from under the water. 

But after that, and as soon as Ryan Gosling appears, things begin to get gloomy. Even though Gosling plays the piano superbly in the film, and actually dances pretty well and sort of manages to sing, he lacks the charisma that made the great movie song and dance men come alive on screen. The story requires him to be a fairly cheerless fellow, and Gosling is admirably suited for this. His dream hasn’t taken off and so he’s got a snitch at the world ˗ until he falls in love with Mia, who’s also got a dream of making it big-time as an actress. In spite of dance duo sequences and an incredibly beautiful vision of Los Angeles, the film gradually becomes more and more downbeat, until it turns out that the dreams each one has will destroy their relationship. Five years later, he’s got the jazz club he always wanted and she’s a big movie star, and has married someone else. And has a child. What? The hero and heroine don’t end up with each other ˗ in a musical? Nooe, not in this one. 

As if to fulfil our expectations in part, at the end, while Mia is watching Gosling (whose character's name barely gets mentioned enough during the film to be memorable) playing the little haunting tune in his club that is kind of a theme song (although in spite of all his fuss about jazz, it’s not a jazz piece), she imagines what would have happened if he’d done one thing differently on the night they met in the restaurant where he was hating playing the setlist of songs. 

As a kind of audience tease, in the trailer this imagined scene is the one we see, where instead of rudely pushing past her because he’s angry that he’s just been fired, he stops and kisses her. If the audience has seen the trailer, their expectation (as mine was) is to see him stop and kiss her when this first happens; instead we get the scene in which he ignores her. 

They have met a couple of times before this, if I remember rightly: once at the very end of the opening dance, when again he’s rude. And this is part of the problem: he’s not actually that likeable a character, even though he does set her on the road to stardom in the end. In doing so, of course, he loses her.

It’s a bit of an oddball story: starting with such high expectations of joy, and becoming more downbeat ever after. Once the romantic stuff starts, everything slows down, and the film seemed to me to be too long for its own good. Plainly I’m alone in this because all the reviews I’ve read think it’s fabulous from whoa to go, and have no criticisms, virtually.


I know that musicals haven’t always been upbeat with happy endings, on both stage and screen, but here the mood changes so considerably that it just doesn’t quite come off. It’s a bit like Carousal, where there’s such joy in the first half and such sorrow in the second. But there the thing is at least balanced better. And it ends in hope. 

There's no hope in La La Land. Once the characters have set themselves on the path they've chosen, their relationship falls by the wayside - in spite of them saying they'll never forget each other. 

Emma Stone is terrific throughout. In fact she holds the movie together. She gets to sing a few times, dances a few times, and has a soliloquy type piece near the end, which is another kind of dream sequence. She does this very well, for someone who plainly isn't a trained singer. Gosling shows that he's worked exceptionally hard to make it look as though he's a superb pianist. When he's playing jazz and such, in the movie, he comes across very well. Unfortunately there are two scenes where he's supposed to be hating what he's doing - it's beneath his talent. The boredom and sourness undercut the value of the scenes somehow, and it becomes a bit of a mystery as to why Mia would fall for the guy. He has a big chip on his shoulder (a scene in which his sister appears and berates him, early in the piece, reinforces this), and wants the world only on his terms. In the end, is he actually happy? He's got the club he always wanted, he's got great musos around him. Obviously it's still not enough. 

I'd had high expectations of the movie. And felt really enthusiastic about it while watching the first half hour. But gradually something goes awry. In spite of all its awards and accolades, I think it's not quite the movie people are seeing. Maybe it's more the movie people want to see, because musicals and movies are so much a part of each other. Let's hope the director/writer, Damien Chazelle, makes another musical, one that really does send you out of the theatre dancing (as someone claimed, rather improbably, that this one does!)




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