La La Land (2017)
It will not surprise any of you regular visitors to lean that I am not a fan of musicals. Well, OK let me quantify that – there are some musicals I like, I was raised on the likes of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Who’s Tommy for example, but I’m broadly referring to the more traditional song and dance jamborees of Hollywood’s golden era, pictures such as Anchors Aweigh, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers or An American In Paris to name just three. I have no problem with broaching the fourth wall of convincing artificiality, or with the slightly strange idiom of characters suddenly bursting into song and dance routines in order to express their evolving motivations and drives – that is digestible. No, it’s just that the music and vocals that accompanies these fantastic flights of fantasy is rarely attractive to my ears, even as the coldly academic cinephile inside me can appreciate the skill of the choreography, the luxurious production design and spectacular camera techniques. In that light I have observed the snowballing popularity for La La Land with a distanced distress, knowing that at some point I will have to go and see this picture as a part of maintaining a finger on the contemporary cinema pulse, my own personal idioms and preferences be damned. Fortunately after many months of staggering praise my antipathy has slowly thawed, to the point where I have metaphorically thrown my arms up in mock disgust, and bitterly muttered ‘OK, OK, I’ll go and see it, are you satisfied?’when in fact I was secretly kinda looking forward to it. There are two potential asides to this entertainment, the first is director Damien Chazelle’ previous form with his debut picture Whiplash which I throughly enjoyed, an incredibly skilled debut which while flawed managed to dazzle in technical prowess and J.K. Simmons captivatingly cruel performance. Secondly I’m not completely immune to the charms of Golden era musicals, Singing In The Rain for example is a throughly entertaining film, providing a fine backdrop of the paradigm shift of Hollywood from silent to sound. So in anticipation of the Academy Award nominations I ambled along to the local multiplex to see what all the fuss is about, and left the venue a couple of hours later with a modest, appreciative spring in my step.
Fortunately, and rather refreshingly I went into this completely blind, I hadn’t even seen the trailer so any expectations were abscenl, other than the knowledge that this was a modern musical which everyone from the festival circuit to the critical intelligensia seems to have fallen in love with. It is love, of the bittersweet and interrupted sort which drives the narrative, the real world and its diverting ambitions that disrupt the path of true happiness, as two ambitious creatives seek their fortune in the glittering, magic-hour framed City of Angels. Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a passionate jazz pianist, fully committed to his craft who yearns to open up a club committed to keeping the legitimate history of authentic improvisation alive. Mia (Emma Stone) works as a beleaguered barista on the Warner Brothers lot while striving through a brutal parade of depressing auditions, furtively awaiting her big break as an actress among the hundreds of other prospective stars. As you’d expect our ravishing couple meet-cute, follow the well trod path of the usual boy meets girl / girl meets boy / divergent success of their career paths placing insurmountable obstacles in the second act climax. Fortunately for the film Gosling and Stone are third time lucky with a gushing Niagra (or should that be Viagra?) of on-screen chemistry, this swirling musical romance punctuated with some fantastical moments, some genuine laughs and tender tears, all set to a shifting seasonal sequencing that moves from the joy and anticipation of spring to the clammy death of winter. Mark my words, this charming throwback is going to win every Academy Award imaginable come February, and probably steal a few categories it’s not even nominated in by sheer force of osmosis.
Although I am aware of Jacques Demy I can’t pretend to be fully au fait with his work, I’ve seen maybe two of his pictures over the years and the experience simply hasn’t carved a trench in my memory bank. From my reading and general cinema knowledge I recognise the primary coloured shadows his work casts across this film, particularly the prismatic palette and his romantic inclinations, but I also was reminded of Coppola’s colossal folly One From The Heart which also tempered its amour with a bittersweet bite. La La Land is a far more successful movie, it’s unashamed deployment of classical syntax – iris transitions, the blossoming costume palettes which look like the debris from an explosion in a Smarties food colouring factory, the frequent and deliriously dexterous plot accelerating montages. We’ve been speaking a lot about fluid camera work recently with the Scorsese material but I can’t avoid repeating similar gushing praise, the twirling and yearning coverage makes the pulse quicken and the heart soar, with its seductive CinemaScope framing La La Land is an unalloyed technical marvel, and even if you’re not particularly attracted to the trope of musical cinema the craftwork alone is worth the price of admission. The background is plastered with nostalgic references, some quite ostentatiously frank – an Ingrid Bergman street etching here, a Casablanca shooting location there. Being Los Angeles denizens and show-business slaves of course Mia and Seb go to the cinema, the magical beams refracted back over their wonderstruck faces, heck they even get to visit well-beloved movie locations such as the Griffith Park observatory of Rebel Without A Cause. It’s a film in love with the history and fading magic of its California location, as much as it wallows in a pool of Post-Modern edification.
One of the functions of the Golden Era musical, intentional or not, was to supply pure, unvarnished escapism from the horrors of the great depression and the subsequent anxieties of World War II. The studios provided a stream of opulent, undiluted fantasy divorced of any pregnant social or political commentary, beguiling those pre-TV, pre-internet audiences with beautiful, sybaritic silver screen sophistication. Why am I bringing this up? Well, no reason, but if this film continues its award momentum then we can expect similar pictures in its wake, as Hollywood will always carnivorously seek to replicate any success, which might be a repeat of some sort of cultural cycle given the current social temperature – we’re already saturated with super heroic speciousness. I’m also amused to see yet another example of the ouroboros digesting its own movie history, like The Artist, Argo, and Birdman once again we see Hollywood celebrating itself again in an onomastic orgy of self-congratulation, as the media landscape becomes more diffused and their ascendant position as the gatekeepers of dreams becomes increasingly degraded. I’m not suggesting this is a bad film as I’m a sucker for a bit of nostalgia, and this is a expertly aligned piece of genuine entertainment, it’s merely an observation of a particular strain of hemispheric cinema continuing to turn inward rather than look outward for new stories and techniques to express them. Would this have pirouetted into my best of 2016 list if I;d seen it at the LFF last year? No, because as I said musicals simply don’t arouse my particular moving picture peccadilloes, but this is a throughly charming and seductive film, marking Chazelle as an ascendant talent to watch, and further cementing Gosling and Stone as two of the most assured talents currently at play. La La Land is a testament to the enduring lure of Tinseltown, a pleasurable, heartfelt and vibrant pastiche;