We’re off again, through the whimsical world of celluloid, with me, Frog.
What’s on today’s tasting menu?
La La Land is Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash. Whiplash is a fucking great movie that you should go watch right now. It’s on Netflix. It didn’t get 14 Oscar nominations, however, which means that La La Land must be a fucking wonderment.
No, of course it isn’t.
La la Land stars the sexiest man on Earth, Ryan Gosling, as the stupidest named character in years, Sebastian AKA “Seb”. Let’s hope they don’t focus too much on that name oh no wait it’s a huge plot point great.
He is joined in what essentially is a two-hander by Emma Stone, who is fucking brilliant in this movie.
Emma Stone is wonderful in La La Land. She is warm and open and honest and believable and the one song that actually hits with any power is of course the one song she sings live (hint : it’s the audition one). She’s on track for an Oscar and I really couldn’t begrudge her it. She feels like a living breathing person, unlike the cold, calculated, automaton-like impersonations of Natalie Portman in Jackie.
Gosling is definitely not bad in La La Land, not bad at all. I definitely preferred him in The Nice Guys, but I think my main issue stems from his character rather than the playing of it. We’ll get to that, though.
First off – Les Miserables has ruined movie musicals.
Les Mis showed you can sing live, and give a kinesthetic, live performance at the same time, and make a movie where you are ACTING as well as SINGING (unless you’re Russell Crowe in which case neither word applies). It changed the rules of the game.
La La Land doesn’t go in for that.
People will say of course that La La Land makes a stylistic choice and is a throwback and is a swooning love letter to the yada yada yada, I get it. I know. It’s just that if you’re gonna mime, you’d wanna be good at miming – make it look like you’re …. y’know, look like you’re singing live.
Nobody in La La Land can mime well. In the big opening number, some of them are even slightly out of step with their own faces. It’s really distracting, and off-putting, and it pulled me out of the film every time the cast breaks into one of the small amount of full pre-recorded backing track songs. Which is a shame, because the songs are lovely altogether.
Anyhow, the film follows Seb and Mia as they have a lovely meet-cute and attempt to live their dreams in Hollywood as (respectively) a jazz musician and an actress. Over the first whimsical hour of the film, there is literally no conflict driving anything and people are just darling and fall in love like that, and everything is right in the world. It’s a musical, sure, but the film seems obsessed with playing both of it’s hands simultaneously – it desperately wants to be a “grounded” and “contemporary” look at Hollywood Musicals, but it is also completely at ease with using all the narrative cheats that those films employ to literally dance around any plot issues and completely undermine it’s modern setting – dreamy montages abound, women dancing in skirts because OOH A PARTY abound.
Prime among these issues for me is the character of Seb – a young man who has moved to LA to make it as jazz musician. It’s a classic story. But…
I mean, do I have to say it?
He’s white. He’s the whitest white guy that ever whited in the world. And while the protagonist of Whiplash was also white, there isn’t an air of nochalant superiority and snootiness to Miles Teller in that picture.
Seb is such an entitled, simpering little hipster in this film – he knows all about jazz, he totally deserves his own fucking club, and he’s going to monologue at length at Emma Stone about it while actual jazz musicians play in the background.
The really irritating thing is – there is literally no reason whatsoever that Gosling’s character couldn’t have been played by an actor of colour. No reason in the world. It would have nipped this niggle in the bud. It would have removed the glean of appropriation that hovers just over the film in a slightly unsettling way. Ah well. As it stands, La La Land is quite happy to have a white man explain what jazz is to a white woman and then begrudgingly join John Legend’s “impure” act (what does a black man know about jazz anyway amirite SEB??) but be really mopey miming on a piano (yes, Gosling’s piano tracks are pre-recorded too) and Emma Stone falls helplessly in love with him and walks out of a nice-seeming dinner with her nice-seeming but now irrelevant non-Gosling boyfriend (fuck that guy! YEAH) and he is never seen again that poor bastard. Why should she be a decent person and explain her actions like a human would? It’s a musical and Ryan Gosling awaits!
OK. Breathe in.
What’s good? The choreography is wonderful – which raises another question for me. When a big musical is up for Best Director, is it not surely equally the choreographers Oscar? I would (perhaps ignorantly) have thought that directing a musical on film is really a three-way job – between Musical Director/Composer, Choreographer and Director – and out of those three jobs, on a musical, the director has the least actual artistic input? Maybe that’s completely incorrect, but I always find it interesting on this kind of project.
The cinematography is also marvellous – the film pops with vibrancy and colour, and it looks gorgeous throughout.
As it progresses, La La Land starts to dial back it’s optimism and , as my friend Mouse puts it, cut some tar into the sugar. There is one conversation between the two leads over a reunion dinner that is wonderfully written and played – if only a mid shot on both of them was used to see their reactions in real time. Sadly, it is very simply over-the-shoulder A and B shots for the entire thing, which is frustrating. But Stone and Gosling give the scene their all, and are both fantastic in it.
The ending of La La Land is proving somewhat divisive, certainly among my circle of friends. In an attempt to be both wonderfully uplifting and real-world drama sobering, the film throws both endings at the wall to see what sticks, hoping to briefly satisfy both types of viewer.
Does it work? I think so. Gosling and Stone sell it really well. They each have their dreams now, and each sacrificed the other for that dream and now they will always wonder if what they had was real love. It will consume their every waking moment. But hey, having a job is good, I guess. What’s the lesson?