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La La LandUSA 2016
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Running time 128 minutes
Synopsis; A musical about a struggling jazz pianist, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who falls for an aspiring actress. Mia (Emma Stone), in Los Angeles.
Right from its opening credits with its retro 20th Century Fox Cinemascope logo filling the screen, Damien Chazelle’s film announces its intention to emulate the 1950s style of Hollywood musical made famous by films such as Vincent Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951) and Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ In The Rain (1952). Almost immediately it goes wrong with a big opening production number set on a choked LA freeway that with its calisthenic choreography and chorus of cheery young people looks like it would be better suited to the era of Fame (1980). This is followed in short order by a peppy number that wouldn't have been out of place in Hairspray (2007) with Mia and her three flat-mates strutting and sashaying in their gaily-coloured party frocks in a number that feels like it is wedged into the story just to ensure that we know that this is a musical and, by heck, we're going to have fun with it (the flatmates simply drop out of the story after this).
Right there you have most of the explanation for why La La Land is both entertaining and not a very good musical, certainly not as it seems to think itself to be or the critical enthusiasm for it might lead you to believe. As a musical it is a pastiche that doesn’t adhere to its aspiration to evoke the classic Hollywood paradigm but instead gives us a mish-mash of things including another ‘80s number in the form of a cheesy cover of Flock of Seagulls’ ‘I Ran’ and a modern day jazzed-up r’n’b number, along with a re-iterating solo piano theme song and a few other quieter numbers. These latter are a blessing as a relief from the pumped-up audio that often drowns out the lyrics.
Chazelle’s idea is a good one but there are lots of problems with his execution of it. For a start the songs are largely characterless and for the most part deadeningly over-produced presumably to compensate for the fact that neither Gosling nor Stone are particularly good singers. A number late in the film which is supposed to be a rousing paean to rebels and dreamers everywhere doesn’t come off because Stone just isn’t a strong enough vocalist to give it the emotion it needs. Even worse, neither of the two are particularly good dancers. And the choreography doesn’t help here. In the scene in which Seb and Mia on a hill overlooking LA, dance out the first steps of their romance one can’t help but imagine what Fred and Ginger or Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse would have made of an opportunity like this. Another scene set in the same observatory that features in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) which has Seb and Mia floating up to the stars on wires is amateur hour when compared to the 17 minute ballet sequence in An American in Paris. Put simply, the screen magic that the 1950s studio system could conjure up just isn’t here. The final number, a synoptic fantasy sequence, is the only exception, precisely because it has its own character. Had Chazelle focused on this more intimate scale, instead of trying to make things big, the film as a musical probably would have been a lot better. With New York, New York (1977) Martin Scorsese made a big-scale musical that looked like it was made in the ‘40s but it was set in the ‘40s and used the technology of the time in order to achieve the right look. Chazelle’s musical is a kind of throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks series of quotations that lacks a unified aesthetic.
Even if far from being anywhere near as good as the films it emulates, La La Land is still an enjoyable film. The romance works thanks to a nicely turned story that takes us through the up-and-downs of young hopefuls who flock to LA with stars in their eyes and both Gosling and Stone give winning performances (there’s also a nice cameo from J.K .Simmons who won an Oscar for his performance in Chazelle’s 2014 film, the impressively economical Whiplash). This means that we have some substance to carry us through the numbers that don’t work whilst those that do are pleasing enough with Gosling doing a fine job of convincing us that he really can play the piano.