Neither the buoyant reclamation of old-fashioned ‘movie magic’ that its marketing promises, nor a facile exercise in misplaced nostalgia as its detractors claim, La La Land is more a companion piece to writer/director Damien Chazelle’s previous Whiplash (2014), expressing similarly ambivalent and conflicted attitudes to the creative process. Lacking the overt cruelty of its predecessor, the film is nonetheless preoccupied with failure, compromise, myopia and unsustainable idylls, interspersed with a handful of expertly (if ostentatiously) choreographed musical numbers that grow further and farther between as the film progresses, in a tapering manner that reflects the waning romance at its core.
As such, it’s not really a musical, even though its musical sequences are designed to evoke classics of the genre, particularly from MGM Studios and Jacques Demy’s own tributes. The use of these sequences is conceptual and meta-theatrical as much as anything else; as with many contemporary musicals, the song-and-dance performances have an in-built degree of folly, however superficially virtuosic they may be. Chazelle is equally intent on evoking the euphoria, whimsy and sadness of its touchstones as he is on highlighting the untenable nature of resuscitating grand cinematic gestures that are inextricably linked to their historical moment, using this ambivalence to question nostalgia as the foundation for art and romance alike.
For the most part, Chazelle has pulled off that tricky high-wire act, and whatever reservations I have with the actual music itself are too boring to essay in great detail (I’m listening to the soundtrack as of writing and the songs still have a tendency to blend into one). Much like Whiplash, there’s no denying the skill involved, and there’s no denying how well it plays in the moment. And yet, that very smoothness ultimately ends up being antithetical to Chazelle’s grander ambitions; praising the film, Jonathan Rosenbaum posits that “the elation of song and dance is only half of a dialectic that also highlights failure, hopelessness, and defeat”, an observation that also points to the film’s shortcomings as both a musical and drama. That Chazelle doesn’t take the Dancer in the Dark route of bluntly oscillating between extremes of fantasy and degradation is a plus, but the ‘reality’ end of this supposed dialectic is so rooted in archetype that a dialectic barely even registers.
That’s not to say that it’s a completely frictionless experience. For a narrative so single-mindedly focused on the couple at its center (Ryan Gosling’s Seb and Emma Stone’s Mia), it’s notable that it opens with a musical number featuring neither of them. A Weekend-quoting lateral track along an L.A. traffic jam, with snatches of contemporary FM rock emitting from the open windows of each car, sets the stage for “It’s Another Sunny Day”, the first and most exuberant of the film’s musical numbers, featuring a large ensemble of racially diverse players. This is soon revealed as a note of misdirect; a jokey “Winter” title card appears, and we’re introduced to Seb and Mia in the traffic, the former cutting off the latter as she’s running late to work.
This is the first in a series of bad impressions that the romantic-nostalgic Mia and Seb nonetheless overlook in favor of the fortuitousness of their encounters. Deciding it must mean something, they begin dating, which includes attending a screening of Rebel Without a Cause at a soon-to-be-closed repertory cinema, but the film is interrupted by the print burning up. Later, John Legend appears as Keith, an old high school friend of Seb and frontman for a jazz-pop band who recruits him as their synth player, telling him that “you hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future”. The film is rife with such omens that all but prod Seb and Mia to adapt to modernity or risk the cold slap of reality, but neither character is etched with enough specificity – their union is eerily sexless, for one – to warrant empathy.
Gosling’s Seb, in particular, is almost entirely without redeeming features; he’s a bloviating mansplainer whose passion for jazz amounts to a vague approval of its ‘purity’, while Stone’s Mia isn’t even granted the chance to explain her love of classic cinema. They’re both ciphers, redeemed only by both Stone’s emotional transparency and Gosling’s screwball comedy inclinations (with a more earnest actor, the film may have entirely fallen apart). It’s to the film’s credit that Chazelle doesn’t seem to align himself with either character – if he does have a mouthpiece, it’s Keith, whose aforementioned statement on jazz reflects the film’s use of digital technology in abetment of its own throwback pleasures.
Still, it’s Dancer in the Dark rather than its more distant forebearers that La La Land brings to mind. The two films have the same tendency toward coyness, in reducing a genre with a rich, expansive history and potential for great emotional nuance to an easy shorthand for their characters’ misplaced hope. Like von Trier’s polarizing and polarized 2000 film, La La Land is (implicitly, at least) conceived as a musical for audiences who don’t like musicals – or more specifically, for audiences who will only accept the unreality of the genre when it’s at the expense of characters that pay the price for accepting an unreality themselves.
Around the Staff