Ehh ‘La La’: Damien Chazelle’s Sun-Soaked Ode To A City of Stars

another-day-of-sun-dance-sequence-la-la-landLos Angeles is a city paradoxically known for two things: its sun and its stars. Most of La La Land‘s musical moments revolve around one or the other.

For months now, the follow-up from the writer/director of Whiplash has been positioned as the front-runner for Best Picture, with plenty of precedent — 2002’s Chicago was a musical named after a populous American city; 2005’s Crash was all about the populace of Los Angeles; 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire revolved around a popular TV show; 2010’s The King’s Speech followed a monarch who needed a vocal coach in order to deliver a performance; 2011’s The Artist, 2012’s Argo, and 2014’s Birdman dealt with showbiz even more explicitly. Put all these Best Picture winners in a blender, add a dollop of Crazy Stupid Love for good measure, and you pretty much get La La Land, Oscar nominee Damien Chazelle’s third music-centric film in a row, starring Hollywood darlings Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. I don’t mean to question Chazelle’s motives in making this film, but it does kind of seem like it was concocted by a Netflix algorithm based on the members of the Academy’s viewing preferences.

Because You Watched Birdman

The story begins with a meet cute between Mia and Sebastian on the on-ramp to a freeway. She’s a barista on the Warner Bros. lot, striving to be an actress. He’s a stubborn hipster pianist who has taken it upon himself to save jazz. They have a couple more chance encounters and soon fall in love, which is believable enough for two such highly attractive individuals. Sebastian inspires Mia to write herself a one-woman show to display her talents; Mia attempts some input into Sebastian’s dream of opening a jazz-themed chicken restaurant — or is that a chicken-themed jazz club? (It’s an homage to Charlie Parker.) The two find that their career aspirations — more aptly, their “dreams” — put their relationship into jeopardy, and at different points each of them wonders whether these dreams should be abandoned in favor of a more practical life.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: and sometimes they sing about this.la-la-land-ryan-gosling-car-driveThe splashiest musical moment in La La Land is its first, featuring a large cast of random multiethnic characters leaping out of their cars to sing the praises of the City of Angels. It’s essentially Crash: The Musical, and it’s vibrant and entertaining, though there isn’t any particular rhyme or reason to who’s singing, or when, or why, and that persists throughout the movie.

I keep second guessing myself in my response to La La Land in that respect, because isn’t that true of every musical? And if so, why isn’t it always a problem, when something about the musical numbers felt so off for me in La La Land?

Best Picture winner Chicago introduced the clever gimmick that fame-obsessed Roxie Hart was framing every number as a movie musical in her mind. Later musicals have often given similar “reasons” why people burst into song. In Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s wondrous “Once More With Feeling,” for example, a demon possesses Sunnydale inhabitants with an uncontrollable urge to sing until they literally catch fire. These devices are handy to bridge today’s blasé audience expectations with the old-fashioned notion of a musical, but I’m not so cynical that self-reference is the only way I can buy in to all the good-natured singing and dancing, because that isn’t normally the case. I’ve never had trouble getting on board with characters turning to song to express their feelings until I saw La La Land, in which I had no clue why characters had chosen these particular moments to sing, or to not sing. Some moments in La La Land feel song-worthy, and pass without a peep. I don’t know why… and I’m not entirely convinced that Chazelle knows, either.la-la-land-ryan-gosling-emma-stone-movie-theaterI’ll venture a guess that Chazelle’s vision for La La Land is that Los Angeles is a land of dreamers, so a heightened musical reality is possible here. But do people also burst into song in Boulder City, where Emma Stone’s Mia hails from? We don’t know. It would seem important to establish a contrast between Los Angeles and, you know, other places in order to sell the idea that the “La La”s in La La Land are literal and exclusive. I love the concept that Los Angeles is so sunny and out of touch with reality that people run around literally singing their hearts out. This might make more sense if it was specifically artsy types who saw reality this way, and this was framed through Mia and/or Sebastian’s point of view, but there’s no pointed contrast with people who are not singing and those who are… which would also be fine, except that the movie doesn’t give anyone else a musical number after that opening. Most musicals present a world where anyone can and will belt out a song to express an idea or further the story; occasionally, they frame this through a specific character’s point of view, and limit the song and dance to certain characters or situations, as in Chicago or Dancer In The Dark. To the best of my knowledge, however, there are no rules in La La Land.

You might expect that the gimmick in La La Land would be that when Mia and Sebastian come together, they make sweet music together. The film plays with that idea, first in a musical number that takes place in the Hollywood hills, with the city of Los Angeles glittering in the background; then, on their first date, in which they break into the Griffith Observatory, and end up literally flying. The latter is a dance number without singing, and it’s one of the La La Land moments that felt flattest to me. First, I’m confused about how much of this is real: are they literally breaking into a Los Angeles landmark with no repercussions? And why are they flying?la-la-land-ryan-gosling-emma-stone-planetarumOkay, okay. I get that this is a musical in which we have to take a lot at face value and not ask questions. Ordinarily I have no problem with that. But up until this point, La La Land has been a very grounded musical, complete with iPhones and sardonic banter and very practical real world set pieces. That’s a choice I’m on board with, if indeed it is a choice Chazelle plans on sticking with. But it isn’t. I suppose this altered reality “in the stars” is meant to represent the characters’ soaring emotional state, but it just makes me wonder why, if this sequence is so stylized, are the rest of the musical numbers so earthbound?

Then again, my problem might be less in the staging and more in the writing of the romance itself, which never managed to get me on the side of wanting this courtship to happen. Prior to their starry night together, Sebastian proves himself to be a total dick on three occasions. The only reason Mia has to fall for him is that he looks like Ryan Gosling. But at the end of the day, Ryan Gosling acting like a dick is still just a dick, and though this cutesy-mean behavior is de rigueur in romantic comedies, most films counteract it quickly with charm and charisma from the leading man. La La Land‘s strategy is to sub in an anti-gravity tryst, which does not alone convince me that Sebastian is not a dick, and I still don’t know enough about the rules of this musical world to understand why these two lovebirds weren’t promptly jailed for breaking and entering.

Yes, I’m sure plenty of the old Fred-and-Ginger Hollywood musicals that La La Land harkens back to had weak stories, glossed over character motivation, and didn’t entirely make sense. A consistently heightened reality would excuse this in most musicals, but La La Land‘s vision of Los Angeles is mostly mundane. If Chazelle wanted to do a musical set in the real world, I wish he’d stuck to that instead of throwing in an impossible fantasy sequence or two. Chazelle gives us everything but the kitchen sink from Hollywood’s long history of movie musicals… then sends the kitchen sink flying through space.

LLL d 41-42_6689.NEFThroughout the film, Mia and Sebastian are presented as world-weary in their dialogue and hopelessly starry-eyed in their songs. In this way, the musical numbers feel out of step with the characters, forcing them together rather than playing as logical extensions of what these characters are feeling at any given moment. The dance between them takes on an entirely different tone than the music-free scenes. Are we to believe that the songs represent the character’s inner monologues, giving us insight into the deeper desires they refuse to express? The things they can’t speak? Not really — or, at least, not consistently. Chazelle’s vision for what the musical numbers represent is all over the map.

Oddly enough, La La Land has precious few supporting characters. J.K. Simmons appears as an ever-so-slightly nicer version of Terence Fletcher, his character from Whiplash, playing Sebastian’s gruff boss; Rosemarie DeWitt gets far too little screen time as Sebastian’s sister. That’s about it. No one besides Mia or Sebastian gets their own musical number, which might seem like a purposeful choice meant to represent their feelings of attraction if the movie didn’t begin in that traffic jam with stray characters singing, with Sebastian and Mia, for some reason, not (even though they’re present). Mia’s roommates and some partygoers join her for an “I Want” song in the film’s lively second number, “Someone In The Crowd,” and then no one else sings or dances for the rest of the movie. So is this a world in which everyone sings, or not?

If the singing is meant to represent the inner monologue of Los Angeles “dreamers,” great! But then why are Gosling and Stone not singing in the upbeat opening number, “Another Day Of Sun”? Why doesn’t Gosling get a musical solo until halfway through the film? (And even then, it’s a very short minimalist one.) Chazelle wants the singing and dancing to represent both the inherent inner dreaminess of artists and the budding relationship between Sebastian and Mia, but those two elements are completely at odds with each other. Sebastian and Mia don’t awaken each other’s inner artist; La La Land places their relationship in direct opposition to their individual goals as creatives. It doesn’t feel like much thought has been put into the placement of or meaning behind the musical numbers. LLL d 13 _2548.NEFThis is most evident in the film’s second act, which focuses on Chazelle’s — I mean, Sebastian’s — preoccupation with jazz, which comes off more like a hipster put-on than an organic interest for this character. As a result, most of Gosling’s musical numbers are diagetic — he’s literally playing piano and singing in the scene, which is somewhat confusing in a movie musical. This can work if the movie is framed through his vision — if we are meant to believe that we’re seeing the world as a jazzy musical because that’s the way this character sees it — but that’s not the case, because we’re with Mia in the most significant moments in the movie, and she gets the bulk of the songs. (Earlier, Mia ironically lip-syncs and dances to A Flock Of Seagulls’ “I Ran,” as performed by Sebastian’s cheesy cover band at a party; I just don’t think this kind of scene works in a movie in which people legitimately burst out singing even cheesier songs.)

Chazelle’s vision of Los Angeles trades on stale cliches and the broadest of broad jokes. (We’ve got traffic and parking tickets! What else is new?) These gags weren’t cutting edge in the 80s and 90s when movies like LA Story and The Player satirized “the biz”; here, they’re tepidly amusing at best. But aside from a handful of light jabs, La La Land isn’t a satire — yet it doesn’t have the conviction to be wholly earnest, either. The first two musical numbers are playful and comedic, though the songs don’t stick quite the way you’d hope musical numbers would. After that, La La Land abandons its commentary on Los Angeles and the entertainment industry for a long stretch to focus on jazz, of all things. Not only that, it abandons its identity as a musical, which is its greatest misstep. Hopefully, you enjoyed Mia and Sebastian’s “first spark” duet, “A Lovely Night,” in the first act, because it’s the last real musical number you’ll see between them.la-la-land-ryan-gosling-emma-stone-jazzsplainingIn La La Land‘s clunkiest scenes, Sebastian mansplains jazz (“jazzsplains”?) to a clueless Mia, who thinks jazz started and ends with Kenny G. (Oy.) Sebastian’s lectures to Mia play like Chazelle force-educating clueless white girls everywhere on why what he loves is important, and they belong nowhere near this movie. Jazz is too weirdly specific a passion for Sebastian’s character in La La Land. Mia’s desire to be an actress casts her nicely as the Everygirl (in Los Angeles, at least), but few in the audience will identify with Sebastian’s equally burning passion to serve chicken on a stick in a dimly-lit basement. To truly work as a film about dreamers, Sebastian should have been portrayed as an equally identifiable dreamer with an equally simple want — a baker, a painter, whatever, even a more relatable musician — and not just an extension of Chazelle’s own musical obsessions.

Spending so much time with Sebastian and his (intentionally?) lame musical collaborations with a John Legend type (played, naturally, by John Legend) confuses the movie musical conceit, especially when the singing and dancing gets wholly abandoned. There’s a long stretch of the film in which we get a grand total of zero non-diagetic musical numbers (and a whole lot of jazz). This might have worked if Gosling were replaced by a black actor, but posing a smug white dude as the lone savior of jazz in the 21st century isn’t a good look, especially when it’s up to him to “teach” the girl about why jazz is cool. (She instantly gets it when she dances in a spotlight surrounded by African-Americans, of course… a mercifully brief but racially tone deaf sequence.)

For La La Land to be such a broad tale about Los Angeles stereotypes, it would help if Sebastian actually was a stereotype the way Mia is. Imagine how much cheekier La La Land could have been with Gosling playing a personal trainer, or something? It doesn’t quite work to cast Mia as a total cliche and burden Sebastian with a storyline you’d expect from a straight drama. Here, Emma Stone is starring in a musical, so she sings and dances; Ryan Gosling isn’t, and mostly doesn’t. la-la-land-ryan-gosling-pianoIf I’m being a bit harsh with La La Land, it’s mainly to push back against the overpraise it’s getting elsewhere. Moment by moment, I enjoyed the film well enough (with brief, seething hatred for those jazz scenes). It’s entertaining enough, if you don’t think about it much, and I suspect most audiences don’t want to think too hard when they see a movie musical. (I can’t help it.) La La Land has earnest intentions and a handful of very good scenes, particularly those that call out Mia’s self-doubt. Both Sebastian and Mia are paper thin characters, but Stone gives her performance enough juice that we’re on board with her throughout the film. Individual moments between the two play well enough, even if none quite capitalize on the chemistry the duo displayed in Crazy Stupid Love — which contained a musical moment that’s better than anything in La La Land, albeit one gleefully ripped off from Dirty Dancing. The film as a whole plays more like a great outline for a movie than one that’s fully worked out. The details haven’t been filled in yet… and I guess they never will be.

In the best musicals, the songs are meant to tell the story, not be the story. The story should be interesting, with or without the music. But strip a few dazzling numbers out of La La Land, and what’s left? Thin characters, a flimsy plot, and a pretty solid finale. All in all, La La Land contains only about five tried-and-true musical numbers. It does have two legitimately great songs, the first of which is the earworm “City Of Stars,” which, unfortunately, gets slightly overplayed in absence of other equally memorable music. I also enjoyed “Audition,” performed by Stone in a climactic moment that’s likely to win her an Oscar. It won’t be entirely undeserved, but it made me wish that the movie preceding it had been as full of depth and feeling as that single moment made it seem like it was. As many problems as I had with La La Land‘s lack of focus, Chazelle does stick the landing, arriving at a point I wish it seemed like he was making all along.

la-la-land-ryan-gosling-emma-stone-kissUltimately, La La Land claims to be about the sacrifices artists make for their craft, and it ends that movie in fantastic fashion. The problem is that that’s not the film we started out with. Mia and Sebastian huff and puff a lot about their dreams, but it feels like they chose them out of a hat. We don’t know what Mia loves about acting; at one point, it appears that La La Land is slyly positioning her to become a writer, but that’s a false start — her writing is only a means to a very generic end. Problematically, it seems Mia wants to be famous more than she wants to be an actress, and that’s what she gets. Similarly, I couldn’t buy Sebastian’s jazz club ambitions as the actual logical conclusion for this character — he has barely a drop of the fiery ambition displayed by Miles Teller’s character in Whiplash, in which we fully believed this guy wanted it that badly.

On paper, you could read La La Land‘s ending as a biting takedown of this “City of Stars,” but on screen, I see no evidence that that’s what Chazelle is after. It’s a bittersweet conclusion, sure, but neither Mia and Sebastian’s relationship nor their individual talents have enough weight or nuance or conviction for me to care which choice they make. Is it meant to be tragic if they end up together, or tragic if they don’t? The film needed to do a little more legwork in acts one and two for us to draw that conclusion.

Alas, members of the Academy are sure to identify with Mia’s emotional “Audition,” and with the message of the film as a whole, just as they did a couple years ago with Birdman. It’s been proven that a movie about the noble sacrifices of actors can and will win Best Picture, especially when they star Emma Stone. It’s looking like that will hold true again in 2017. I’d like to believe that now, of all moments, a film like Moonlight can cut through the artifice and be rewarded for its authenticity; what better message could liberal Hollywood send to the fascist conservative folks rising to power in Washington, D.C., than crown a film about gay black men the Best Picture of the year? But the Academy is even more self-aggrandizing than it is liberal, so La La Land is about ten times more likely to sweep awards season than Moonlight. It’s already happening.

Oh well. Here’s to the ones who dream, right?

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