Nah Nah Land, Or: Why Chazelle’s New Film Fails as a Hollywood Musical
Here’s what I love about the American musical: it’s a fantastic world in which every single actor — no matter how small their part — gets a chance to dazzle the audience: with a soaring high note, or with a leap across the stage, or even with just the vibrancy of the colors on their costume. In the musical, everyone matters.
I mean, yes, we go to the musicals to see the stars — to see Gene Kelly twirl his umbrella, or to see Judy Garland sing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Yet, we always stay for the entire show because we accidentally fall in love with every single character on the screen. We fall in love with Gene Kelly, but we also fall in love with Donald O’Connor, his sidekick. We fall in love with the Tin Man, the Lion and the Scarecrow — and the Munchkins, too. In “The Sound of Music,” we fall in love with every single, adorable toddler of the Von Trapp family when Maria teaches them how to sing “Do-Re-Mi.”
And, slowly, without realizing it, we learn how to fall in love with the entire world again. After we’ve watched a really great movie musical, we’re left with an appreciation for the fact that everyone around us has a rich interior life: a heart that’s swelling with so much emotion that — if you gave them the spotlight — they might just burst into song. Even the people whom you’d least expect to sing: the nuns, the high school dropouts, or maybe a troupe of chimney sweepers, like the ones who sing in Mary Poppins.
We even learn to appreciate the most mundane sounds that we’ve tuned out as white noise. After all, if you’ve watched any great musical, you’ll know that it’s these mundane sounds that always set off the fireworks of a rich ensemble number, like the whistle of a train, or the trample of pedestrians on their way to work — or, maybe, even, the honking of cars caught in a traffic jam in Los Angeles.
The honking of cars caught in a traffic jam — if you haven’t seen the movie yet, that’s exactly the sound that launches the viewer into the wild, sparkling, extravagantly nostalgic world of La La Land.
Right off the bat, La La Land immerses you in a radiant world of fantasy. A spunky young woman, played by Reshma Gajjar, emerges from her car in a sunflower-yellow dress, and she rallies together every single commuter who’s stuck on the I-110, and she leads them to transform the freeway into an electrifying, carnival world of song, and dance, and color, and sunshine. Meanwhile, Damien Chazelle is capturing this whole parade with a sweeping, 6-minute long take that’s even more rigorously choreographed than the dances that happen on screen. The song, “Another Day of Sun,” just might be the most ambitious musical number that Hollywood has conducted since the dawn of the 21st century.
It’s a little over the top, reaching the territories of camp, but that’s okay. It’s a Hollywood musical, after all. For Christ’s sake, please: give us camp! If Damien Chazelle continued to hit this high note of whimsy and cheer for the next two hours, he would’ve truly had something spectacular, another one of those Hollywood classics that helps you fall in love with the world once again. Yet, that’s not what Chazelle does at all. For a movie that starts off so right, I don’t know how, but La La Land turns out to be something so wrong.
I hate to be the critic who just seeks to poke holes in the reputation of a movie, especially a movie that sparkles with so much charm for its first fifteen minutes. The movie’s spectacular camp charm doesn’t dissipate immediately, right after the first number, but it keeps going, slowly fizzling out like champagne.
I think that the greatest moment of La La Land is its second-number, “Someone in the Crowd,” because it is the last moment of pure, contagious fun, right before the film dives into the uninteresting, petty melodrama of the central romance of the film. Mia’s roommates — all of them struggling actress-baristas — drag Emma Stone’s character out to yet another West LA, nighttime pool party that she doesn’t want to go to, and so, of course, when there is a disagreement at hand, the entire cast on screen has to burst into song.
Each of Mia’s roommates has a pretty flat, cookie-cutter personality, but they all have a rich chemistry as a group act. I don’t think that Mia’s face ever glows with more excitement, throughout the rest of the film, as much as during this musical number, as she and her roommates are twirling around each other in their lavish, candy-colored dresses. Thus far, everyone who’s appeared in the film — from Mia‘s roommates to Reshma Gajjar, the girl who leads the very opening of the film — is a fantastic dancer. For the first fifteen minutes of the film, Chazelle introduces you to a world that’s full of dreamers.
However, this entire cast of dazzling dreamers — and all of the charm that they bring to the table — disappears at the moment of Mia’s and Sebastians’ very first encounter. By the moment of their second encounter, as Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are prancing in tandem to the tune of “A Lovely Night,” La La Land has transformed itself into an entirely different film, which is so much more of a drag.
Sebastian and Mia each has tons of faults. For starters, Sebastian is just kind of a jack-ass. Well, that’s okay. Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson aren’t perfect either. Stories are all about transformation, and so is the experience of falling in love. By the end of the story of Grease, Danny puts on the goody-two-shoes letterman cardigan, and Sandy puts on the leather jacket. Well, maybe you’re amongst the party of people who hates how much Sandy has to change in comparison to Danny—how sexist! — and yeah, that’s a problem of the film, but for now we can all acknowledge that Grease, to some degree, is true to the reality of love: if you’ve met the one that you want, the one that you need, then you better shape up.
On the other hand, Sebastian and Mia, as they fall in love, only fall deeper into a dangerous world of fantasy, a really bad kind of fantasy, a world in which they’re fiercely committed to an us-versus-the-world mentality. Everyone they encounter throughout the course of their relationship extinguishes the flames in their hearts, almost as if the world were out to get them. It’s not just the restaurant owner, who kills the vibe of these two dreamers. It’s Mia’s coffee-shop boss. It’s the casting directors. Sebastian’s bandmates. The agents. Mia’s parents. Sebastian’s sister. Mia’s acting peers. The photographers.
It’s even the people who are the most generous to these two dreamers. John Legend plays a pop-soul artist who gives Sebastian a really awesome gig as a piano player for his chart-topping band, The Messengers. It’s a gig that pays Sebastian insanely well. As a pianist for The Messengers, Sebastian finally gets to tour the country, to play show-stopping riffs, to finally get his name out there as a real musician. He even gets his face on the cover of an iconic, popular music magazine.
However, John Legend’s character gets demonized more than any other character in La La Land. You’d think that John Legend were playing Mephistopheles, or something, to whom Sebastian has sold his soul, because John Legend places the biggest, most heartbreaking wedge between Mia and Sebastian. Mia storms out of Sebastian’s apartment one night, crying her face off, when she is disgusted by the sell-out that Sebastian has become.
Mia and Sebastian repeat this unhealthy cycle of behavior throughout the movie. Rather than encourage each other to improve, they do quite the opposite. Mia and Sebastian only fan the flames of each others’ narcissism. When Mia cannot land any good role in Hollywood, Sebastian tells her to stage her own, single-actress play. On a similar note, Mia pretty much convinces Sebastian to quit his band. La La Land becomes a story of two dreamers who are trapped in the absolute stasis of their own stubborn selves. They’re more like dolls, or action figures trapped in their original packagings, rather than real human beings.
Mia and Sebastian are also like action figures, or dolls, because, surprisingly, for two gorgeous leads of a high-budget Hollywood musical, these two performers are actually pretty stiff as dancers and as singers. They’re not great at either thing. I mean, they hit the notes, sure, but they never do it with bravado. Ryan Gosling doesn’t ever throw his whole body into a leap, the way that Gene Kelly does, and Emma Stone’s voice is way too flimsy. You get the impression that, if you were to see Emma Stone actually perform on Broadway, her voice would get drowned out by the blast of the trumpets and the frills of the piano.
So, La La Land particularly bothers me because Chazelle cuts out the opportunities for all these ensemble performances in exchange for a lot more numbers that just feature these two performers, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, who are fabulous entertainers, but who aren’t meant to star in a musical at all. I’d much rather hear more exuberant harmonies by Mia’s roommates, or the pop-soul of The Messengers, or even the charming voice of that girl who leads the parade of dancers down the freeway.
Yet, Chazelle’s camera forgets about all these people. He seems so uninterested in shooting ensemble numbers that I’m not even sure why he decided to shoot a musical at all, because he doesn’t seem to know a lot about musicals, because I don’t think he sees that the ensemble number is the lifeblood of a great American musical.
Chazelle doesn’t even seem like he’s seen very many of them. I don’t mind movies that are rife with homages, movies that are nostalgic for the Golden Age, but I can only spot two musical allusions throughout the whole film — The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Singin’ in the Rain. And, the first one is a French production. I don’t even know if Chazelle has ever watched a Ginger Rogers and Fred Estaire film.
When you’ve watched all of La La Land, the first two ensemble numbers turn out to seem very disingenuous. Chazelle seems like he’s directed those two numbers to pay mandatory lip-service to the musicals of the past, as if those two numbers were chores. Chazelle isn’t interested at all in directing that kind of film with ensemble numbers. He just isn’t very interested in the concept of communal efforts.
At the end of La La Land, Mia and Sebastian have, shockingly, resisted all temptations of change throughout the film, and they have managed to achieve each of their life-long dreams that they’ve yearned for their whole lives. Mia flies to Paris to become a movie star, and Sebastian eventually runs his own jazz club.
But, I mean, at what cost? I don’t mean to be cheesy, but fuck it, musicals are supposed to be cheesy, and we’re talking about musicals, so I’m just going to say it: journeys are all about the friends you make along the way. At the very least, Wizard of Oz is all about this life-affirming journey. So is Grease! Grease could have ended with the electrifying “You’re the One that I Want,” but it instead ends with the much campier but much more festive number, “We Go Together.” Every single character of Grease gets a chance to sing in the end, because, after all, musicals are about the very fact that everyone matters.
Yet, at the very end of La La Land, Mia and Sebastian turn out to be very lonely people. Mia has a picture-perfect nuclear family, but she doesn’t seem in love with her husband at all, and Sebastian is, well the jack-ass that he’s always been. And, where did everyone else in their lives go? Does Mia keep in touch with her roommates? And, when is the last time that Sebastian got in touch with the character played by John Legend? Each of their social lives, at least from what’s revealed by the film, has become completely empty. Sebastian, for one, seems like King Midas, sitting on a throne of gold, when he is performing on stage at Seb’s. For Christ’s sake, he’s playing piano, center-stage, in the middle of his spotlight, at his own god-damn jazz club. Who the heck does that?
La La Land, by now, has been honored with a stunning number of seven Golden Globes. I don’t have a problem with that at all, but during her award speech, Emma Stone told her audience that La La Land is “for the dreamers.” Well, that sounds like the usual idea behind every Hollywood musical. Hollywood, after all, is a city built by dreamers. And, there’s no problem with doing the usual thing, when the usual thing — making movies “for the dreamers” — is so timelessly captivating.
But, I mean, how can Emma Stone say that La La Land celebrates the dreamers, when it’s so cautiously selective about the dreamers that it wants to celebrate? Sure, Sebastian and Mia, despite their melancholic loneliness at the end of the film, more or less get exactly what they want.
But, what happens to everyone else in the film? What happens to Mia’s roommates? What happens to the unnamed woman who leads the first number on the freeway? What happens to John Legend’s character? What happens to everyone else in his band, The Messengers? In fact, what happens to everyone in Sebastian’s first band? The one that does shitty covers of Eighties songs? Surely, none of these band members wanted to be stuck for their whole lives in a shitty Eighties cover band. Surely, each one of these bandmates had a dream of his own. Maybe one of these band members even wanted to open his own jazz club. Maybe he does open one! Maybe he opens a better jazz club! One that isn’t as stubbornly traditionalist as Sebastian’s.
And, surely, every single person whom Mia and Sebastian meet throughout the courses of their life-journeys is also, in fact, a dreamer. I mean, who isn’t a dreamer? Would you ever dare to say that you are not a dreamer? Have you ever met a single person who’s never dreamed a dream?
La La Land wants to be a good musical, but it doesn’t have enough heart to impress the people who actually watch musicals. And, La La Land wants to be a good love story, but the love between Mia and Sebastian is way too flimsy and bland to impress anyone who’s watched the classic love stories, like Casablanca, or Gone with the Wind.
Honestly, I’m not sure who the film is actually for. Maybe it’s for the two stars of the show, because Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are definitely winning Oscars for this film. Maybe it’s for Damien Chazelle, who just wanted to direct a big-budget musical to show the world that he can. Well, whatever’s the case, I’ll say one thing for certain: La La Land isn’t a film for the dreamers.