Friday, December 30, 2016
THE LOVERS, THE DREAMERS, THE SO-SO SONG & DANCE: a review of "La La Land"
Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
**1/2 (two and a half stars)
RATED PG 13
I know!!! I know!!! I can't believe it either!!
I am certain that after just seeing the star rating, many to most of you will be thinking that I have completely lost my mind and am just an eternal grump for not being swept away by a film as fantastical as this one. Dear readers, please allow me to explain myself and please do keep reading and not turn away from me out of disbelief.
Damien Chazelle's "La La Land," his follow up feature to his outstanding, pummeling "Whiplash" (2014), is a cinematic triumph on many levels as it is a luxuriously executed musical fantasy that is worlds away from the gritty, independent feature that preceded it. It is a film that I have been itching to see for several months now due to the glowing advance reviews as well as based upon the initial trailers that made me feel that this would be a film that would fly straight to my cinematic heart of hearts. Perhaps my expectations were too high. I don't know...I am willing to concede that possibility. But when all was said and done, "La La Land" for all of its razzle dazzle and expertise lovingly upon display, I just was not moved terribly much.
Now, with its first sequence, "La La Land" had me enraptured. After beautifully displaying the vintage Cinemascope logo, Chazelle opens his film with an astonishing song and dance sequence set upon a bumper-to-bumper Los Angeles freeway. In what I think was one of the most extravagant unedited sequences I have seen in recent years the song "Another Day In The Sun" is movie musical euphoria, conjuring up the legacy of classic musicals of cinema's past with blazing colors, swirling cameras and a sea of singers and dancers merged blissfully in gorgeous choreography atop their cars in that aforementioned stalled traffic. It is truly one of the finest opening sequences I have seen in any film this year and it gave me high hopes for the remainder to follow.
Beginning in earnest, "La La Land" stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as Mia Dolan and Sebastian Wilder, respectively--two struggling artists and hopeful dreamers longing to make their fame and fortune in their respective callings of acting and jazz music. Where Mia works as a barista in a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot while also failing to achieve successful auditions, Sebastian bounces from one piano playing job to another due to uncompromising artistic nature and purity to his craft.
After first encountering each other petulantly during the film's opening sequence, and again just as petulantly as Mia, wounded from another failed audition and skipping out on a plastic Hollywood party, finds herself in a bar and enchanted by chance Sebastian's lyrical piano playing--the very sort completely unwanted by his boss (J.K. Simmons in a sharp cameo) who immediately fires him just before Christmas.
Months later, after Mia catches up with Sebastian again, now forced to working as a keyboardist in a 1980's synth-pop cover band, the two grudgingly begin to officially meet and build their obvious attraction in a lovely duet song and dance sequence.
Of course, and in classic movie musical fashion, Mia and Sebastian fall in love and begin to share their dreams in becoming a famous, respected actress and jazz pianist/nightclub owner specializing in the preservation of pure jazz music. Yet, when pressures mount and dreams are compromised and threatened to be extinguished, will their love survive?
Look, dear readers, I feel powerfully that Damien Chazelle's "La La Land" is indeed worthy of all of its accolades as they are exceedingly well deserved as he is indeed a filmmaker that has achieved an artistic growth not many other filmmakers are really able to pull off. Frankly, I am not terribly certain if I have seen something quite this sort since Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson debuted with his intimate, independent thriller "Hard Eight" (1996) and then took a quantum leap to the sprawling, wide screened 1970's epic of "Boogie Nights" (1997). "La La Land" shows that very same conceptual leap as its entire magical, more innocent tonality is a complete 180 degree turn from the brutal force of "Whiplash." Chazelle, with these two films, has certainly displayed himself as a filmmaker to take serious notice of as he pursues his future projects, whatever they may happen to be.
Chazelle is in complete command of his material in which he is superbly aided by Cinematographer Linus Sandgren who beautifully realizes the musicals of old, Composer Justin Hurwitz's vibrant, jazzy score (and to a lesser degree, the songs) and most certainly Mandy Moore's first rate choreography (not the singer but the dancer you may have seen on television's "So You Think You Can Dance"). And yet, I am certain that you are wondering, why didn't I greet this film with the same rapturous applause I heard at the conclusion of my screening?
Let me try to explain it this way. For me, the finest musicals that I have ever seen, from more traditional films like Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's iconic "Singin' In The Rain" (1952) and Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' "West Side Story" (1961) or the more pop/rock musicals that I grew up with like Norman Jewison's "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1973), Ken Russell's "Tommy" (1975), Milos Forman's "Hair" (1979), Alan Parker's "Fame" (1980) or even Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge!" (2001), happened to all be films that were completely transportive. Movie musicals that truly swept me away into their respective film universes and musical dream worlds so completely that I almost wished the real world could emulate what I had seen upon the screen with people spontaneously bursting into song and high flying dance numbers.
"La La Land," aside from the first sequence and despite how extravagantly presented Chazelle delivered his film--and there are several dazzling sequences--I just was not swept away at all. In fact, for me, the film opened on such a high note that I think the rest of the film had a bit of difficulty maintaining its momentum and peak, often falling short when I should felt more and more elevated.
Furthermore, all of those films (plus others I have loved) all contained songs that I was not only still singing to myself upon leaving the theater. They were all riveted into my memories sumptuously and long enough for me to obtain the soundtrack albums for me to re-experience them. With "La La Land," by contrast, while the songs themselves were definitely well composed and performed, often by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone themselves, the songs were not terribly memorable. Even now as I write, I am unable to recall even much of any melodies that I heard over the course of the two hour plus film. Now this criticism, is certainly more a matter of taste but I do think it does present a bit of a problem regarding the overall success of the film for me.
But the, there was an even greater ad more fundamental problem I had with "La La Land" and that could not be avoided or just subjected to a mater of taste. Frankly, the character of Sebastian is an insufferable hipster jerk.
If there was one area of "La La Land" that I felt fault with and one too big to be ignored it was indeed the love story itself, and I felt this way due to one especially large factor: one of the participants in said love story is and becomes such a self-righteous, self-important.narcissist that all I wanted was for Emma Stone's character to run as fast as she was possibly able from him. Now without spoilers, I understand that some of my issues are indeed weaved into the character of Sebastian as flaws for him to recognize or overcome but even so, I was so turned off by him that it derailed the romance the film was working overtime to build upwards.
There was a certain in-authenticity to Sebastian that just rubbed me the wrong way, especially with his devotion to jazz music, which is not a problem in and of itself, but from one sequence to another, Sebastian and his dreams of owning his own jazz club and remaining a jazz traditionalist during an age where jazz music is not being nurtured and properly cultivated to endure just struck me as smacking of a "White Male Saves Jazz Music" conceit that I felt to be troubling. Certainly, this feeling is steeped in the origins and history of African American composers and musicians that created jazz music but it also perturbed me that the character of Keith (very well played by John Legend), a former classmate of Sebastian who is now a successful guitarist and bandleader to the degree that he offers Sebastian a lucrative opportunity to join his band, is the character who is presented as the ultimate sell-out where Sebastian musical integrity is severely compromised. Who knows if this was necessarily Damien Chazelle's intent, but this sense of cultural appropriation just did not sit well with me whatsoever,
To that end, Sebastian's sense of traditionalism, and integrity runs into becoming so self-serving and self-important that the character ends up suffering from a superiority complex (his "mansplaining" about jazz music is more than a little tin-eared and even annoying) that even runs against Mia's sense of artistic integrity. Again, some of this is indeed story driven but perhaps it was a tad too successful in its execution as their tension built to a point where Sebastian seemed cruel and therefore, Mia completely deserved much better, so much so that "La La Land" may have been better served by solely focusing upon Mia and her journey as the central story and maybe without a love story at all. Just think about it for a moment, a film about a young actress trying to break into Hollywood and it is a musical. That works all by itself and carries enough inherent drama, comedy, and flights of fancy to make a perfect musical without being saddled with a love interest who is really only in love with himself and his own desires. I know its a fantasy but when I am having trouble buying the fantasy, that is indeed a problem.
All of that being said, Damien Chazelle's "La La Land" is a loving, earnest, honest, beautifully filmed throwback, much like Writer/Director Michel Hazanavicius' silent film Academy Award Best Picture winner "The Artist" (2011). In fact, I will go on record right now with a prediction...I think that "La La Land" will not only receive an enormous amount of Academy Award nominations, it just may go on to win Best Picture as Hollywood loves movies about itself, especially ones as richly and as lavishly well made as this one. Regardless, I know you'll see it and most likely love it to pieces.
I just wish that I loved it as much as you did because, believe me, I really wanted to.