How does one begin a new year? Sigh…and arguably, not by bashing Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016); a movie so distortedly raised to the rafters as an homage/reflection/second coming of the golden age in movie musicals, both as an evocation and as a query into what the protagonists of any Cinemascope escapist fantasy would sincerely wish for, if only life itself were as excruciatingly perfect as…well…a movie musical. La La Land tells the turgid little tale of a pair of misfits desperate to make good on their dreams in the City of Angels. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) wants to be a one-man renaissance in classical jazz. Mia (Emma Stone) is running on low octane as she subjects herself to another humiliating round of auditions for dramatic parts utterly unworthy of her talents in the actor’s craft. The two meet…no, not conventionally ‘cute’…but on a typically gridlocked L.A. freeway. He honks his horn and she shoots him the finger. Love at first sight, my fanny! Stone and Gosling do have a pseudo love/hate chemistry at work in La La Land that is satisfactory when the movie foregoes the fact it is a musical and settles on straight angst-ridden post-coital sexual frustration; diverging careers, mindsets and lifestyles all tearing at the fringes of their tenuous relationship. But when they begin to uh...sing...there is virtually no emotion to be shared with the audience, just a bit of 'aren't we clever' and a lot of 'I can't believe we're actually doing (getting away with) this' on display. This leaves the film woefully undernourished.
In keeping with our post-postmodern slavish devotion to un-happily ever-afters, La La Land concludes, not with a coming together of these awkwardly melded would-be lovers, but a thorough discombobulation of their amour, conflicting career aspirations and yes, even their starry-eyed dreams; defeated, deflated and distilled into an accepted crossfire between fame and money. Bittersweet - even tragic - musicals have worked spectacularly well in the past; from a murder at the end of West Side Story (1961) to incarceration/separation and pending divorce for the finale of Funny Girl (1968), right up to the life-claiming tuberculosis that caps off Moulin Rouge (2001). So let me begin by suggesting a musical need not be ‘hah-hah-happy’ or all ‘hearts and flowers’ to be great…even to be memorable. Alas, La La Land is neither; merely present and accounted for, and, as such, falls decidedly un-salvageable, except as disposable film fodder and in spite of all the incredulous and sycophantic fawning it has already received by a good many – if not all – of the critics, who have sincerely lost their minds as well as their hearts, calling La La Land everything from ‘soaring and gorgeous’ to possessing ‘the potential to make lovers of us all’. …and sinners of the rest, if you ask yours truly.
What this movie desperately needed was a knockout combo like Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor a la Moulin Rouge, and the frenzied flamboyance of a Baz Luhrman to truly make the audience take flight, as limberly as co-stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (suspended on invisible wires herein) appear to suddenly rise out of their seats and into the projected heavens at the Griffith Observatory; a movie-land rip-off of Marge and Gower Champion’s gravity-defying pas deux to ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ from MGM’s 1952 remake of 1935’s Roberta – rechristened ‘Lovely to Look At’. What La La Land receives instead is the blue-collar pairing of your typically sullen Joe Average meets effervescent doe-eyed Suzy Cream Cheese. Honestly, when Ryan Gosling’s rising jazz musician finally acquires enough of a nut to call out Emma Stone’s pert and marginally shrewish failed playwright for sending him a steamer trunk full of mixed signals, the wounded look written all over Stone’s visage is akin to bitch-slapping Bambi. As per our stars - Ryan Gosling has about the least convincing vocal capability of any young buck in Hollywood. Listening to his hoarse renditions of A Lovely Night or City of Stars I was sincerely reminded of exactly how much I adore the copycat musical styling of Michael Buble…whose efforts thus far I absolutely loathe. 'Nobody but me', it seems.
I cannot impart upon young aspiring singers, much less those untrained, yet ego-driven and working in the industry today, and, who continue to think of themselves as artistes of their generation, that the prospect of tickling a talent has to begin with the raw talent itself and project outwardly from this point of embarkation. I would simply impress upon the instruction for anyone tackling a lyric today that it is absolutely not ‘all’ about hitting the notes correctly (though, decidedly, this is a start) - even with a voice as thin and un-prepossessing as Gosling’s, but decidedly more about infusing the lyric with genuine meaning, real emotion and yes, a real singer’s intonated bravado. Gene Kelly's voice was thin, but he had both the resiliency of a go-getter/perfectionist’s heart and the content of his ego-driven character as substitute. And it should be pointed out (though it seems relatively self-explanatory), Kelly also had talent; could dance rings around most anyone of his own generation and virtually everyone who has feebly attempted to emulate his masculinized musical machismo ever since. I will also direct everyone’s attention to Marlon Brando’s Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls (1955); a performance willed to moody musical magnificence by Brando’s formidable acting chops; also, Rex Harrison’s sublime Professor Henry Higgins in 1964’s My Fair Lady and Robert Preston’s gutsy charm in The Music Man (1962). None of the aforementioned was a great singer: but virtually all exceled in the musical genre because they brought their astounding personalities and mindboggling prowess as irrefutable thespians to the forefront of their respective performances. Alas, Ryan Gosling has neither merit to fall back on. Thus, his brand of pouting masculinity left me utterly flat in La La Land.
Emma Stone does not rate as much contempt for an as equally flawed performance, chiefly because within La La Land’s dramatic arc and occasional curve we can see flashes of a truly inspired performance about to lurch forth from the proscenium, only to be hogtied and dragged kicking and screaming back into this mangled musical mélange. At one point, Stone chuckles her way through the picture’s love ballad, City of Stars. Not amusing…not at all. But she also acquits herself rather spectacularly of a throw away scene in which she is auditioning for the part of a lover on her cell phone and about to be told by her paramour he is engaged to another. In these fleeting moments before a ridiculous assistant callously intrudes upon the audition, Stone runs the gamut of emotions, from bubbly gushing infatuation to inspiringly self-imploding shock, and finally, drawing in the tears as she exposes the unflinching emotional ramifications of having one’s intestines kicked out from the inside. We can sense the magnitude of the moment without any additional back and forth; Stone in complete command of her performance and the screen. It is a superlative moment that proves unequivocally what a very fine actress she is, or rather, has steadily become in other pictures on the road to... If only La La Land did not require Stone to periodically slip into Leslie Caron-ville she might have risen above the mediocrity in Chazelle’s lumbering script that plays hard, then fast and loose with the narrative timeline; again, too clever for its own good, and drawing unnecessary attention to the fact our hearts are supposed to be manipulated
Let us be clear about one thing, despite its gimmicky usage of 2oth Century-Fox’s Cinemascope logo to open the picture, La La Land is nothing like a vintage Fox or MGM musical from any vintage in either studio’s illustrious history of past achievements by which one might wish to compare it. Why is it contemporary directors of musicals think if their camera maneuvers are clever enough the audience will forget quick cutaways to people gyrating - and not even in unison - can take the place of (choke!) genuine choreography? I have seen better dance steps performed weekly on an episode of Dancing with the Stars than in the whole of what’s on display in two hours here. Perhaps if La La Land had a Mark Ballas or Maksim Chmerkovskiy hired on to helm the dance sequences they would not have been such a mishmash of eclectic styles simply thrust together with zero finesse. The 'ballet' sequence that ends La La Land’s perfunctory romance, as example, with an angst-ridden reflection on the ‘simple’ lives Sebastian and Mia might have shared together if either were not so supremely narcissistic in their endeavors to ‘be somebody’ to the rest of the world, adds up to a jumbled recap of the movies entire plot with clear-cut rips offs of Audrey Hepburn's/Richard Avedon-inspired balloon ‘photo shoot’ sequence from Stanley Donen’s incredibly adroit and still perennially satisfying Funny Face (1957) as well as the speakeasy sequence from The Broadway Ballet in 1952’s Singin' in the Rain. But the homage, if one is actually intended (I have read conflicting opinions about this) is so wafer thin; a sliver of a moment gleaned from each aforementioned movie – again, with virtually none of its context or inspired choreography, or even a spark of essential genius to draw something new from the old - that what we get instead are flashes or hints to better work done elsewhere, minus the joyous celebratory ‘feel good’ virtually all movie musicals that truly succeed have in spades.
But somewhere in the back of La La Land is a pert spank to all movie musicals of days gone by; John Legend’s smarmy punk-jazz musician, Keith suggesting to Sebastian the reason traditional jazz clubs are on the wane is because no one wants to listen to traditional jazz anymore. I hear the same argument being applied to physical media these days. No one wants Blu-ray because everyone is streaming their digital content - right? Wrong! And no one will sit through a musical today either – right? All evidence to the contrary as La La Land continues to bring in the crowds. To be blunt: trends are brief. Fads are a dime a dozen. But talent – real reel talent – endures, as a renewable fascination for each new generation, eager to rediscover a Miles Davis or a Gene Kelly. You cannot kill art. You can suppress it either. I mean, Hitler tried. You can attempt to discount it in favor of propping up some contemporary straw dog as a thinly-veiled ‘greater than’ substitute and/or replacement. But it is hard, to damn near impossible to flim-flam an audience with a lot of smoke and mirrors once they have seen greatness on the screen. And greatness, at least in La La Land’s pantheon would have to include the likes of a Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Howard Keel, Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds and their ilk.
My chief complaint with La La Land is its frenetic camera work, however brilliantly conceived, sacrificing both motivation and meaning in the musical sequences. Employing a long take for Another Day of Sun, La La Land’s big – and presumably splashy – opening, did not serve that number well at all. It was clearly cleverly timed, and interesting as an exercise in technique (in much the same way Martin Scorsese used it for the hand-held tracking shot following Ray Liota and Lorraine Braccio into the bowels of a nightclub in 1990’s Goodfellas) – but that is all! Worse, Another Day of Sun has not one moment of genuine dance in it to complement its bouncy rhythm; just a lot of people behaving as though they have just entered a carnival after midnight; jumping up and down on the hoods of their cars and generally running amok in and out of other parked vehicles, lip syncing to the pre-recording as the camera on a boom follows them in and out of this gridlocked quagmire. Messy stuff, overall. More messy stuff in 'Someone in the Crowd' - camera pan and tilts, back and forth, up to a palm tree (like, it's southern California - we get it) down into a pool as a bunch of over-inebriated party-goers simply decide to throw caution to the wind and dunk their fully-clothed bodies into the chlorinated briny. I get it. This Gastby-esque implosion is an illustration of the superficial hedonism Stone's mousy barista absolutely abhors, later to be counterbalanced by her own, as choppy and unsatisfying, jaunt through the Griffith Observatory; and another reference to the Marge and Gower Champion inspired pas deux from Lovely To Look At; except again, there is NO dancing on display; just a lot of pseudo strolling and hand-holding, a few quick light steps, presumably meant to infer a courtship/mating, as our stars suspended on invisible wires, rising up into the projected night sky only to be brought down a few fleeting seconds later with their heads still in the clouds.
Virtually all of the numbers in La La Land are as CLUMSY, CLUNKY and UNINSPIRING - but especially if one has seen the girth of MGM/Fox musicals from the 30's, 40's, 50's and 60's. Even if you have not, none of the songs in this movie ever rises anywhere close to the level of celebratory elation on display in movies like An American In Paris. As per, tragi-romance; better stuff on tap in Barbra Streisand/Omar Sharif, William Wyler's Funny Girl. Then again, we have Bab's to thank here; another, contemporary (at least not dead) star of the first magnitude and the only one still selling musicals long after the genre was considered passé. Yentl (1983), anyone?!? I have already pointed out the choreography in La La Land is practically nil. Two clicks of the heel on a tap shoe in A Lovely Night, and a couple of near passes and posturing with some hands and feet intermittently strutting do not a pas deux a la Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse make. And let us be honest here; this moment was definitely leaning towards an evocation of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse's erotically charged Dancing in the Dark from The Band Wagon.
So, what are La La Land’s pluses? I count one. I love Justin Hurwitz’s score; a fun and sassy blend of tunes expressly written for the picture and a few throwbacks to the fluff best left on the cutting room floor from the 1980s. And then, there’s the jazz – brassy, bold, richly satisfying and bar none the best music in the picture. Alas, as if to add insult to injury, there is an inside joke about the art of jazz and why it is dying on the vine – or, at least, at Hollywood and Vine; Sebastian explaining to Mia people go to clubs where they talk over great improvisations put forth by artists who should, in fact, be afforded all the reverence of a symphonic concert hall; extolling the virtues of their passion while talking right over their music himself; Chazelle compounding this affront by actually insisting to write dialogue that advances the story and meant to drown out the hot licks being performed as perfunctory backdrop at best, and, infinitely more moronic than ironic if you ask me! Hurwitz's songs are more inclined toward the Andrew Lloyd Webber ilk of pop opera inspired grandiloquence than those Tin Pan Alley ditties that “send you out with a kind’a glow as you say, ‘that’s entertainment!’”
But I digress. And virtually all of Hurwitz’s efforts are thrice hamstrung; first, by some truly terrible vocalizations, second, by Chazelle’s inability to conceive how they could best be integrated into the dramatic arc of the story he would rather tell, and finally, by the heavy-handed way virtually everything that occurs while the songs are being sung is brought down into the doldrums of a bargain basement pick n’ save discount bin, meant to discourage the fact we are watching a bad musical unfold. The subtext, that all the past achievements in the Hollywood musical genre are dead and buried and should remain so in favor of something new - something better, presumably coming down the pike of another movie we have yet to see, is not really subtext at all, but Chazelle Mactacing the message to the foreheads of our collective consciousness as though it were a diaphragm no self-respecting virgin ought to have forgotten on her first night out in this big bad world of men.
Okay, for argument’s sake, let us run with the notion the past is the past. Done. Finished. Period. Over. Fine. Then why not embark on a musical without all the painfully transparent references to old Hollywood? Stone’s Mia has a gargantuan poster of the luminous Ingrid Bergman plastered across her bedroom wall for Pete’s sake! There are so many references from Gosling’s Sebastian to recall the glories of Young Man with A Horn (1950), Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) and Paris Blues (1961) there is really no place to go but down for Gosling’s blue-jeans and wrinkly undershirt knockoff. The ballet unfurling herein captures only the cardboard illegitimacy of those big and bloated sequences immortalized with superior planning, staging and dancing in films like A Star is Born (1954) and Oklahoma! (1955). Yet, in virtually every frame, La La Land is all about remembering better movies and far better musicals made elsewhere; from the primary-colored ensembles worn by Stone and her entourage of gal pals (harking to Shirley MacLaine, Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly's attire in 1969’s Sweet Charity) to the overhead Busby Berkeley-esque shot of Stone and her girls (Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno, Jessica Rothenberg) strutting Jersey Shore-style down a typical L.A. street, spinning like uncoordinated tops to show some leg. Ah me, sluts…I mean youth…definitely youth! We also get a Great Gatsby-ish party sequence; too, too long and utterly pointless. Honestly, there is nothing like a good ole-fashioned toe-tapping musical to set one's heart a whirl. Just in case any doubt is left behind (along with all hope): La La Land is nothing like a good or old-fashioned musical: just noisy and, in its last act finale, sad to the point of being deliberately maudlin. There are better musicals out there, folks. A lot better, indeed! Pass and be very glad that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Now playing at a theater near you, ostensibly refusing to burn its projector lamp at full aperture. My presentation was inconsistently dark and muddy; colors muted, and shadows concealing other fine detail.
A popcorn and drink for which I paid dearly!