“La La Land” Review: Why They Don’t Make ’Em Like This Anymore

When the first teaser for Damien Chazelle’s highly anticipated follow-up to “Whiplash” dropped, I was suitably beguiled. For starters, it was stone-cold beautiful. Emma Stone had never looked lovelier. Ryan Gosling had never looked lovelier. And, most importantly, LA had never looked lovelier. As Gosling’s haunting rendition of keynote track ‘City of Stars’ played out over a sample of what promised to be a love letter to classic ‘50s musicals — tinged, in ubiquitous midnight blue, with a Jacques Demy-esque melancholy — I was hooked. So, it seems, were a lot of other people and, as “La La Land” has been making the rounds of the festival circuit, the buzz around the film has become considerable.

Yesterday, at the London Film Festival, I finally got a chance to see it for myself, and if you want my review in 140 characters or less, here it is: As Rosalind Russell once said of Cary Grant in “His Girl Friday,” “La La Land” is wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way.

No film has provoked such a conflicted response in me, made me simultaneously love and hate it to such a degree, since the first time I saw “The Philadelphia Story.” And, I’m pretty sure that’s a compliment of sorts. My problem with “The Philadelphia Story” was (and still is) that no matter how sparkling the script is; no matter how effortlessly brilliant its delivery and direction is; and no matter how effective it was at restoring its female star’s box-office credibility, the film ultimately achieves all this at the expense of a narrative, the sole aim of which is to punish Katharine Hepburn for being her headstrong, outspoken, one-of-a-kind self. It was deliberately orchestrated — by Hepburn herself no less, though that only makes its success even more hollow — to systematically destroy every aspect of her star image that studio bosses were worried audiences found off-putting at the time — her upper-classness, her presumed un-attainability, her “unlady-like” wilfulness and “androgynous” air, in short, the “virgin goddess” persona that takes such a beating in the film. My problem with “La La Land” is that no matter how sparkling Chazelle’s script is; no matter how confident and striking the direction, or how sumptuous the cinematography and set design are (sure-fire Oscar nods for Linus Sandgren and Austin Gorg respectively), the film ultimately fails to become what it sets out to be — a “classic” musical re-invented for our times. And it does so at the expense of a far more interesting movie, and (dare I say it?) a more necessary one.

Audiences so far seem to have been won over not solely by the film’s visual mastery, but by its emotional heart and what, as a new kind of musical, it has to say about contemporary relationships. But I have to confess that it ultimately left me as cold as Hepburn supposedly left the average movie-goer back in the early ‘40s. I’m well aware that I’m in the minority here, if the heartfelt standing ovation the film received at the screening I attended is anything to go by. Maybe I was sleep-deprived. Maybe I’ve lost all capacity for feeling. Or, maybe I’m just bored of attempts to “reinvent” the charms of a classic Hollywood romance through the prism of yet another heterosexual relationship between two white leads.

Here’s the set-up: A guy and a girl keep meeting, losing, and subsequently finding one another again on the ragged edges of LA’s “showbiz” scene. Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress who has a day job as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot. She auditions for everything in sight but her attempts at stardom are always being thwarted by casting directors, who inevitably end up giving the part to a “prettier version” of her — or just someone who managed not to turn up to the audition with a coffee stain down her shirt. Sebastian (Gosling) is a jazz pianist, with the emphasis on the jazz. He keeps getting fired from his gig at a restaurant, as he seemingly finds it impossible to resist the urge to cut loose from the muzak and improvise, much to the annoyance of the manager (J. K. Simmons). When Mia’s not being insulted by Hollywood, she’s busy idolising its history, and she spends her lunch breaks wandering the studio lot with the wide-eyed fascination of a young Betty Schaefer in “Sunset Boulevard.” Sebastian, meanwhile, mostly spends his days at a drive-in coffee shop, staring morosely across the street at the building which used to house his favourite legendary jazz club (and is now a “samba and tapas” joint). One day, he vows, he will restore it to its former glory.

So far, so much Hollywood cliché. The “twist” here is that “La La Land” is not interested in whether or not these two star-crossed dreamers will get together, but if (when they inevitably do) they will manage to make it work. By the time the film begins to ask that question, however, I was realising that it hadn’t made any convincing attempt to make me particularly care for either of them in the first place.

At the halfway point of the narrative we know Sebastian is a) really good at playing the piano; b) thinks jazz is a “dying” art form and has made it his personal mission to “save” it; and c) has a sister. (Oh, and some parents somewhere). We know a little more about Mia. We know she a) has a boring (and swiftly jettisoned) boyfriend called Greg; b) comes from Boulder City where her parents, sceptical about her life choices, still live; and c) was inspired to make her bid for stardom by an actress aunt who used to rent old movies for them to bond over from the library.

If this musical were solely an indulgent recreation of its Hollywood ancestors, then its minimal foundation would be just fine. But the “point” of “La La Land” — as director Chazelle himself claimed after the screening — is that it’s a loving homage to those films that aims to tug at its audience’s heartstrings in more ways than one, by simultaneously being grounded in reality. The maddening thing is that it almost succeeds on the strength of Gosling and Stone’s performances alone. But no amount of emoting can disguise the fact that — in spite of its whip-smart dialogue, its technical brilliance, and a passion for the movies that inspired it that is obvious at every turn — they’ve been given very little of substance to work with here. By the time the film does begin to go against the classic Hollywood script, its lack of groundwork as far as the central couple are concerned has cost it much of its potentially subversive power.

What I found most galling, though, was the fact that “La La Land” not only plays it safe with the dynamic between its two leads — wouldn’t switching the roles up even, so that she’s the gifted pianist who waxes lyrical about jazz, and he’s the klutzy actor, at the very least make things a tad more interesting? — but also replicates more questionable aspects of the era of filmmaking to which it is in thrall. Why does Mia need to be given a boyfriend to abandon early on in the film, for example, when what’s at stake for Sebastian throughout their relationship is his dream career, and that alone? Why is it only Mia who is given a small-town home, and a small-town family, to run back to? Yes, these are elements drawn from every tale ever told about a wide-eyed wannabe-starlet — but why choose simply to reproduce them? They undermine the film’s otherwise well-meaning attempts to get across that this is firmly a relationship of equals — though even these amount to little more than painting Gosling’s character as the flesh-and-blood version of the actor’s “Hey Girl” meme incarnation.

For that matter, if I want to see a film featuring a white man who feels it’s his mission to single-handedly “save jazz” from the diluting influence of popular music, I could simply re-watch an old Warner Bros. picture liberally inspired by the life of Bix Beiderbecke called “Young Man With a Horn” (which I imagine Sebastian — whose prized possession is a piano stool once used by Bix’s buddy Hoagy Carmichael — has done many times). Weirdly enough, Michael Curtiz’s 1950 film does more to convey even the tiniest feel for jazz’s origins to its audience (however begrudgingly) than all Sebastian’s rose-tinted platitudes on the subject. As I watched he and Mia dance their way through LA’s remaining jazz clubs — in front of a backdrop of predominantly black musicians and extras — I couldn’t help but think about every jazz band whose music Golden Age Hollywood alternately vilified and appropriated, and every black artist who played second fiddle, if they were lucky, to its white leads.

What’s more, Afro-Puerto Rican film pioneer Juano Hernández got more lines, and more emotional depth to work with, in his brilliant supporting performance as “Young Man With a Horn” mentor-figure Art Hazzard back in 1950, than John Legend gets here in his first major speaking role as Sebastian’s erstwhile friend — and frontman to the new-age jazz band he eventually signs with to pay the bills — Keith. These are two very different movies — one a noirish “biopic,” the other a dreamy musical deliberately intimate in its scope — yet, I find the evocation of their mutual obsession with jazz troubling in both cases. To be fair to Legend, the easy charisma he brings to his portrayal of Keith carries the character. But stop to consider what Keith’s purpose is in this narrative, and you can only conclude that he’s there to reinforce Sebastian’s conflicted-genius image by telling him (and us) that he’s “a pain in the ass” but he’s yet to find a better piano-player.

The way in which he does this is not uncritical. Indeed, Keith is the embodiment of what seems to be the film’s ultimate message for both characters and audience: that life isn’t like the movies, and that dreamers have to compromise to achieve both professional and personal happiness. Whichever way you look at it, though, as the film’s only supporting character, Keith is there to reflect, and prompt reflection in, its white lead. The musician’s newly adopted electro-funk stylings, complete with pulsating neon and backing dancers, is there to represent only what it isn’t — which is the kind of music that stick-in-the-mud Sebastian longs to play. And there you have my problem with “La La Land” in a nutshell: that it doesn’t hold true to its own mantra — which is also Keith’s — that great art must reinvent itself to survive.