I am not one of those know-it-alls who goes to the movies and constantly says, “That would never happen!” I’m sure scientists roll their eyes a lot when watching movies set in space and police officers groan at inaccuracies when watching cop shows. If you have a good deal of knowledge about a movie’s subject, it’s more difficult to keep your suspension of disbelief hovering in the air when what you really want to do is just enjoy the movie that was made, not the movie you would have made if you were there to fix the things they got wrong. That said, I feel I did my best to have an enthused, open heart when I recently saw La La Land. After all, the film’s main inspirations are Hollywood musicals, specifically one of my favourite movies ever, Jacques Demy’s magnificent The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I was ready to step into this movie’s fantasy world.
The elements are there for this film to work for me. La La Land opens on a gridlocked Los Angeles freeway and kicks things off with a one-take 360-degree musical number. The jazzy big band sound and MGM-style choreography is fun and cheerful and sets the stage perfectly. We meet Mia (Emma Stone), a barista on the Warner Bros. movie lot, who is also, natch, an aspiring actress. After a bad audition experience, Mia’s roommates take her out to a party and they leave their wonderfully designed apartment singing and moving in sync with great eye-popping colourful dresses. Loving it so far.
Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz pianist, who is playing a restaurant gig he hates. He’d rather be playing “pure jazz” than the set list of Christmas tunes the owner (J.K. Simmons) is demanding, although why Sebastian must play boom-chick polka style versions of “Jingle Bells” instead of lightly swinging in a tasteful manner is a mystery. He rebels by playing a song of his own composition (not jazz, more of a waltzy French chanson, but it’s lovely) and builds up to a bombastic Liberace-like climax before getting fired. Meanwhile Mia has walked in, enchanted by the music, but the frustrated Sebastian passes her by. Months later, Mia encounters Sebastian playing at a party in an 80’s cover band. Her request for “I Ran (So Far Away)” by A Flock of Seagulls and subsequent lip-sync performance is one of the best things in the movie.
Here’s where the movie started to lose me. Mia confesses that she doesn’t like jazz, which prompts Sebastian to take Mia to a jazz club in order to sell her on his passion. I suppose the only dude who could get away with explaining the importance of jazz to his date and not wind up going home alone is Ryan Gosling. I partly credit the success of my marriage to the fact that I have never tried to do this to my wife. Mia’s experience with jazz music is like that of most non-fans; it’s background music. Sebastian attempts to enlighten her by bringing her to a club to hear the real thing. A small combo starts to play and the horn player isn’t three notes into his solo when Sebastian turns to Mia to tell her what’s happening, loudly pontificating at the front table, treating the band as background music to his lecture.
Sebastian’s big dream is to own a jazz club. This seems unlikely to ever happen, judging by his sister’s too-brief reminder that he’s again behind in paying his bills. Sebastian’s iron-clad jazz values are tested when an old friend Keith (John Legend) approaches him with an offer to join his soul/pop band. Clearly it’s not Sebastian’s fantasy gig, but the band is good! John Legend sings like a dream, of course, and the band sounds like a mix of some of today’s more musical pop artists in the vein of the Dap-Kings, Jason Mraz, or even John Legend himself. Sebastian’s skills are not being tested but the money is the good and the work is steady. Mia is understandably sad that Sebastian is constantly away on tour, but her main concern is that Sebastian is artistically selling out by not sticking to his dream. But who says he can’t be fulfilling his dream by taking this prime opportunity for a few years and saving money for his club? My wife, who is an authority on musical theatre, tells me that some of the plot lines she loved when she was young have lost their allure with the wisdom of years. She now sympathizes with Rent’s Benny and wonders why Mark and Roger can’t grow up and pay their damn rent. Here, I’m wondering why Sebastian has to now do the opposite of what Mia seemed to suggest earlier and be a pragmatic musician. I’m thinking, “Man, you’re a musician in an expensive city. Don’t turn up your nose at a well-paying gig!” This plot point feels like it’s wedged in for conflict’s sake.
There is not much character for Emma Stone to wrestle with. She talks about her aunt who introduced her to classic movies but beyond that, she doesn’t seem to want to be an actress for any real reason. Stone’s considerable charm elevates the thin screenplay and we empathize with Mia’s audition nightmares. The scene where Mia auditions for a starring role in a movie and is asked by the casting directors to forgo a monologue and simply tell a story (“The Fools Who Dream”) is the movie’s emotional highlight. It’s the first time, far too late, that I felt taken somewhere else.
I don’t need Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling to dance as well as Astaire and Rodgers or sing with the best of Broadway’s belters. Woody Allen’s 1996 film Everyone Says I Love You shows how non-musical theatre performers can be used to charming effect in a modern musical. I am not a dancer and I can’t tell you good pirouette technique from bad. I do know that Gene Kelly dancing in the rain is nothing less than magic and one of the most joyful things in the history of the cinema. Here, I just wanted to feel… something. The fantasy musical bits are mostly fine, some are excellent. But the dead weight of the story keeps things from truly lifting off. It feels like director Damien Chazelle has brought together elements of movies he really likes and just jammed them into his film. He’s assembled the dots but hasn’t connected them. Mostly, I was just bored.
The tech credits are uniformly excellent. Justin Hurwitz’s melodies are quite lovely and recall Michel Legrand’s ability to effectively repeat motifs and themes to good effect. The cinematography, editing, set design, costumes all work together in a spirit of whimsy and delight. I would love to see other filmmakers take this torch and keep running with it. There is hope for that since the soundtrack is currently the number 1 selling album on iTunes.
Despite my underwhelmed response, I am encouraged by the fact that a film like La La Land was even proposed. I was therefore very curious to finally see Chazelle’s previous movie Whiplash from two years ago. It was a best picture Oscar nominee and won J.K. Simmons an Oscar for his performance. Where La La Land has charm and colour in service of a not-very-interesting story, Whiplash, as it turns out, is a horrible insult to what music is supposed to be.
Miles Teller plays Andrew, a jazz drummer enrolled at the fictitious Shaffer Conservatory, the most prestigious jazz school in the country. Andrew’s goal is to play in the top big band led by the tyrannical Terence Fletcher. Now I have no doubt that Damien Chazelle wrote this character based on a real teacher that filled the young Damien with dread and I have known a few conductors myself, thankfully not many, to use intimidation as a tool. But Fletcher is a grotesque ogre who would clearly be sued for the abuse and violence he hurls at his students in the name of pushing them beyond their current abilities.
Beyond the ridiculous way in which this movie presents music in rehearsal and performance, the entire tone of the movie completely lost me. Obviously our sympathies are supposed to lie with Andrew and we are supposed to fear the monster Fletcher. But Andrew’s self-flagellating desire to show Fletcher that he’s earned a place in the band is so extreme as to be ludicrous. Even the emotional journey we’re supposed to be on is implausible and aggravating.
The primary problem with both Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian and Miles Teller’s Andrew is that they are supposedly jazz musicians but they don’t play jazz with anybody else. They are shown only working alone, pursuing their art in some pseudo-soulful mockery of the actual desire to make music. Jazz is nothing if not communication with others. In fact, most music, at its heart, is communication. If you are a singer in a choir or a cellist in an orchestra, the entire purpose of what you do is to play well with others. This is even more important in jazz where improvisation is a key element. Andrew is never shown jamming with other musicians or even talking with fellow students about records, famous solos, or favourite players. No, his practice routine is by himself, with the single goal to play faster and harder, not more musically, not learning anything. Not once is Andrew shown enjoying playing music. What is the point of playing music if joy is not there somewhere? Even the climactic scene where Andrew plays at Carnegie Hall (after suffering yet another laughably implausible humiliation doled out by Fletcher), his “triumph” is achieved by closing out everyone else around him and playing real fast and loud, with Fletcher conducting his entire improvisation for some reason.
I studied jazz at Capilano University in North Vancouver as a vocal student and I know a little bit about the world a jazz student can lose themselves in. It can be discouraging. From time to time you absolutely question your abilities and your place in the world of music. The world of Whiplash is unrecognizable, a complete and utter mystery. It is ugly and this movie’s idea of what music is supposed to be is a repugnant joke.