La La Land – a review

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La La Land, as conventional as a musical can be

Critics are gushing over this pedestrian, post-modern musical, almost as if they’d not seen a musical in their lives. The Guardian critic describes it as “gorgeous”. All I can say is, his idea of gorgeous is different from any dictionary meaning of the word. Another calls it “dazzling”. Well, there’s plenty of scenes shot against gaudy neon signs, but this is a story about ordinariness, not a costume romance set in Belle Èpoque Paris. I am still waiting to be dazzled by this Christmas pantomime with bad songs and a few topical gags.

Musically illiterate teen scene will love this near-camp, urban remix of Singing in the Rain. Though it purports to be real life today, it isn’t, not by a mile. It’s cleverly constructed to draw in the immature. They’ll be enraptured so long as they think the main character’s lives mirror their own desires. This is the stuff of dreams imagined by personality flat liners, an ode to the desirability of living together in a marriage free society avoiding messy divorce.

The entire edifice is aimed at youth and the young at heart. But … and it’s a HUGE BIG BUT – if you’ll excuse the expression, almost everything ‘gels’ as they used to say, because the acting is spot on, but what should be memorable, ain’t. The music sucks. There is a love motif repeated over and over again and is still not memorable. I can just about recall the first eight notes…

In fact, there’s hardly a critic who’s remarked on the uninspired quality of musical composition other than to aver it’s wonderful. I’m no critic, merely someone who is involved in the industry from time to time, but I do know there is any amount of first class films out there that put La La Land in the shade when it comes to awards time.

How can you have a musical that has a complete absence of whistle-able, memorable songs and lyrics? The film’s inability to provide any inspiration begins right from its energetic yet hopelessly underwhelming pre-title sequence and continues throughout determined to derail the happy couple’s travails.

It opens with a host of chorus extras leaping about on car bonnets and roofs – look carefully and you’ll spot the concave roofs from too heavy dancers. They belt out an utterly bland ditty on a crowded highway overpass. At least Sunshine on Leith on half the budget had the gift of songs and music by the Proclaimers.

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Nice primary colour co-ordination, girls, but you’ve got three minutes before that LA sunset drops out of sight

When the world’s economy is in depression and people in despair what is Hollywood’s answer? Give ’em a musical!

Mia and Sebastian, ‘Seb’, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, are Hollywood hopefuls, she an aspiring actress regularly humiliated at auditions – how your heart goes out to her for her suffering – he a fine jazz pianist keen to have his own club one day. In various scenes Gosling is actually playing piano and disporting a fine talent for jazz. (Outside films he is a musician with his own rock band and has cut a few albums.)

Sebastian is introspective, sure of his artistry but arrogant, she is gregarious but lacking in confidence. There are touches of Grease without the bravura or exuberance, and moments of West Side Story without the Jets. They meet and part, meet again, fall in love, bicker, make up, help each other move up the social ladder, fall out … just like real life. The actors never put a foot wrong except when they are dancing. However, their expressions, their reactions are pitched perfectly, then again they should be, they’re professional actors.

The real star of La La is the camera. It dances better than the actors. It swirls and twirls and birls three hundred and sixty between parked cars, down condominium corridors – suspiciously widened to allows three hoofers to dance side by side – among stars in the night sky, across water, up and overhead, down and around, between legs, anywhere it wants. This camera is acrobatic skilled, a high wire execution of dizzy accomplishment.

Having been as honest as I can, I still recommend it so long as you don’t mind Hollywood being in love with itself. How ironic that it arrives at the very moment American has elected a president in love with himself.

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Multiple mirrors: Gosling and Stone could easily be watching themselves in a movie about themselves playing characters in a movie about the themselves in movies

This is yet another industry-focused film to win awards. Two years ago we got Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman – it was truly dazzling – a flashy backstage comedy revolving around an ageing Hollywood leading man’s crisis of self-worth. More recently there was the Coen Brothers Hail, Caesar! in which George Clooney plays a kidnapped movie actor.

Ben Affleck took the top prize for Argo, a tense, fact-based thriller in which the CIA pretended to be a Hollywood movie team in Iran there to rescue hostages. And that was only a year after Hollywood fell head over heels for the French film-maker Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, a delightful homage to silent cinema and silver-screen glamour. There’s also Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, in which a young Parisian orphan is enraptured by the innovations of the silent-cinema pioneer Georges Méliès.

Damien Chazelle’s tribute to Hollywood musicals is of the Gene Kelly variety rather than the Fred Astaire kind. It stars people who haven’t devoted their lives to the talents such musicals demand. And it shows. I’ll see any movie starring Ryan Gosling, but I don’t see him as the go-to actor when the role is hot blooded passion.  He seems to me an actor with Steve McQueen’s handbook of acting in his back pocket. But you forgive him and Stone because their acting is so natural. Dancing and singing they get by, just. My favourite scene is the simplest: they sit down to dinner, prepared to face everything that’s not working out in their lives. For once script and direction give us truth.

Chazelle’s musical numbers explode with so much movement that you feel somebody slipped a Mickey Finn in the dancer’s drink. What he’s very good at doing is topping and tailing a scene. There’s a clever crispness in the way he uses movement and sound to punctuate. And the narrative often glides symmetrically from one scene to the next seamlessly, with a pleasing visual ease and guile.

For musical fantasy there’s a scene where Mia an Sebastian gain entry to the Mount Wilson Observatory where they dance among the stars, but the director’s imagination seems not to take off fully until the last fifteen minutes when we’re given a sophisticated montage of what their partnership could have been, and what their fate actually is.

Personally, I preferred the reality of shown places closed down, like cinemas and eateries. In those moments the musical is properly grounded. And from my knowledge, a lot of it is shot in Pasadena not in Los Angeles itself. The rest is Warner Brother’s back lot.

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Director Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone on the set of La La Land.

It appears no actress can escape the clutches of Hollywood sexism. None other than Emma Stone herself has complained that her ideas and improvisational suggestions were continually side-lined in preference for those from her male stars.

“There are times in the past, making a movie, when I’ve been told that I’m hindering the process by bringing up an opinion or an idea. I hesitate to make it about being a woman, but there have been times when I’ve improvised, they’ve laughed at my joke and then given it to my male co-star; given my joke away. Or it’s been me saying, ‘I really don’t think this line is gonna work,’ and being told, ‘Just say it, just say it, if it doesn’t work we’ll cut it out’—and they didn’t cut it out, and it really didn’t work!”

Hold on, Emma. We didn’t come to the cinema to see real life!

The film is overlong. Should it have won seven Golden Globes? Seven? The Globes were begun by boozy and bored international journalists as a joke ceremony, and it still is no matter who says it’s a barometer for the Oscars. Will La La win an Oscar? The answer has to be yes: definitely two, one for cinematography, and perhaps another for its lead actress.

If a musical should be anything, it should be toe-tapping, dance-able, hum-able, sing-able with great songs and music. Am I right, or am I right? Cue the music!

  • Star rating: Three and a half stars
  • Director: Damien Chazelle
  • Writer: Damien Chazelle
  • Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
  • Music: Justin Hurwitz
  • Choreographer: Mandy Moore
  • Duration: 2 hours 8 minutes
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4 Responses to La La Land – a review

  1. Ghillie says:

    Happy New Year Grouse Beater = )

    The last great musical I really really enjoyed was Grease! Oh wait a minute, Cats! Haven’t seen Sunshine on Leith yet and am looking forward to it.

    Thank you for your candid critique of La La Land. And Emma Stone’s revelations of her experiences of sexism on set are particularly interesting to hear. I wonder how she managed to keep heart and still give them an award winning performance in the face of that. Speaks well of her and her professionalism and poorly of the director.

    I would quite like to see it but now I won’t be heartbroken if I don’t manage. Would however like to check out the others you listed!

  2. diabloandco says:

    Another save my cash moment , thanks!

  3. Grouse Beater says:

    Well, it’s a bit of a hybrid, good in parts, but oddly low key. A newspaper critic says its takes all the elements of the classic musical and then deconstructs them … hmmm…

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    Well, as I said in reply to Diablo, it’s a Curate’s egg of a musical. It does hold you for its length chiefly because of the acting from the main characters, but the last third is either inspired or a complete mess.

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