La La Land misunderstands the conventions of the film musical, failing to develop compelling characters through song, dance, or dialogue.
Earlier this year in Hail Caesar, Channing Tatum, dressed in a sailor suit, tap danced on tables and into our hearts, lamenting shipping off to sea and away from women. The number was called “No Dames,” and it was packed to the brim with references to Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire numbers. Tatum is no Sinatra, but he can sing well enough, and as a movie star, he’s as close as we’ve got to a 21st century Gene Kelly. The homoerotic subtext of similar musical numbers of yore became blatant, comedic text. It was so over-the-top absurd that it only made sense as a musical number, in the heightened reality that provides.
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A musical is a musical because its characters can’t possibly express themselves except through song or dance. We fall in love with Fred Astaire alongside Ginger Rogers as he sweeps her off her feet with his dancing. We only get inside Llewyn Davis when he sings because it’s the only time his misanthropy stops being his defining characteristic. We take joy in the singing and dancing at the Kit Kat Club because we, too, are seduced by the party as we, like the characters, try to avoid the reality of the encroaching Nazis.In LA LA LAND, the characters have no particular reason, no real urgency, for bursting into song.Click To Tweet
Damien Chazelle’s new musical, La La Land, lacks this secret sauce of musicals: his characters have no particular reason, no real urgency, for bursting into song. The film opens with the flavourless “Another Day of Sun”, sung by a group of extras stuck in an L.A. traffic jam. It’s the site of the first meet cute for our lovers — struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and fledgling jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling) — but they don’t even participate in the unexpected group serenade and elaborate dance number. As the film shifts focus to the budding romance, the songs get more relevant to the plot, but there’s still no internal logic about why only a song will do.
An Astaire/Rogers number isn’t magical merely because the pair are superlative dancers but because their movements and facial expressions tell a story. Their relationship shifts from the beginning to the end of each song, and Ginger Rogers’ reactions are what sell it. But in La La Land’s numbers, Seb’s and Mia’s relationship to each other is always secondary to their surroundings. The Paris of an impressionistic painting, the tour of Los Angeles landmarks, and the dizzying starscape of a planetarium at night serve as stand-ins for the emotional highs of falling in love. But these archetypally romantic locations are in no way specific to this pair’s journey to each other. The film’s theme song, “City of Stars,” is background music for a montage of quick cuts showing weeks going by, as their relationship intensifies. But it’s more about the idea of them falling in love than actually watching them do so.
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The one time Mia and Seb actually need to burst into song is, accordingly, the best number of the film. They find themselves strolling along a moonlit L.A. street, volleying insults instead of admitting to their attraction. But once they put on their dancing shoes, sparks start to fly. The number features the perfect mix of elegant costumes by the great Mary Zophres — Stone in a flowing yellow dress and Gosling in a dapper suit — romantic lighting, and memorable tableaux. Chazelle mercifully tones down his usually overactive camera movement to place their connection front and centre. Too bad the scene is a pale imitation of Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire’s iconic Central Park evening dance in The Band Wagon, because the clumsy dancing from Gosling and Stone obviously can’t compete.Chazelle has clearly made the choice that the musical is all about him: his camera will do the dancing, Click To Tweet
Fred Astaire famously said, “Either the camera dances or I do.” Chazelle has clearly made the choice that the musical is all about him: his camera will do the dancing, and he’ll be there to sit on your shoulder throughout, preaching through his characters, hoping you won’t notice they can’t sing or dance. Quick cuts and whip pans aren’t inherently bad: Baz Luhrmann used them to great effect in Moulin Rouge. But there, cinematographic tricks bolstered the film’s hallucinogenic atmosphere. La La Land isn’t nearly so thoughtful. The moments that swept me away were the quiet ones: a still frame of Mia and Seb composed to look like classic jazz albums, or that one moonlit dance. When Chazelle’s camera work intrudes, the film suffers. In one particularly obnoxious scene, a fast-panning camera spins from the middle of a swimming pool at a party, complete with invasive splashes. It might as well be an advertisement for Gravol.
It’s clear that Chazelle cast Gosling and Stone for their dramatic weight and comedic timing, rather than their ability to sing and dance. Though their charm and chemistry single-handedly carry this hacked together plot, he never gives his actors much to do. We learn what little we do about Seb, Chazelle’s authorial surrogate, from his obnoxious speeches to Mia, in which he mansplains and whitesplains jazz, and from his grimaces when playing the piano in contexts he feels are beneath him. The one time Seb plays his solo masterpiece, all I could think was, “Buddy, you’re no Brad Mehldau. Don’t quit your day job.”
Most of our insight into Mia comes through montages of her auditioning for stereotypical guest roles on procedurals. Chazelle, through Seb’s baseless praise, assures us Mia has hidden depths, but doesn’t bother to show them. Her most personal role, the one-woman show she sacrifices everything to mount, occurs entirely offscreen. Mia’s big solo number of the film is in an audition, but it’s based around an anecdote about someone we’ve no reason to care for. It’s merely an opportunity for Chazelle to voice the film’s theme. The lights go down in the room, leaving Mia in spotlight singing her heart out. A spotlight generally indicates that a character is telling us something personal or confessional, but this isn’t the case here, an especially odd choice given the song’s structural place in the narrative. t should be climatic, bringing all of her emotions to a head. But Chazelle has given Stone so little to work with that it’s more about Stone giving a heartfelt performance than about us taking a journey with Mia.Chazelle never gives us the highs needed to buy into their relationship.Click To Tweet
Though Gosling and Stone struggle through several of the musical numbers, their lack of musical talent wouldn’t necessarily be a dealbreaker. Judy Garland could never quite keep up with Astaire’s steps in Easter Parade, but she sung the hell out of Irving Berlin’s tunes. Adrian Lester is only a passable singer, but his rendition of “Being Alive” at the Donmar was great precisely because his voice cracked with feeling: it was emotion first, technique last. But Chazelle neither finds unexpected emotional beats through his leads’ imperfect technique, nor does he give them room to use their acting chops to counterbalance their musical shortcomings. The nonstop string of montages renders their performances moot. The musical numbers lose meaning, and we have no reason to really root for these characters as a pair. Chazelle never gives us the highs needed to buy into their relationship for fear that it might compromise La La Land’s trajectory toward a bittersweet ending.
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