La La Land (2016)
Dir. Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend,
Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Tom Everett Scott
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"I should have known better with a girl like you
That I would love everything that you do
And I do, hey, hey, hey, and I do...
So I should have realized a lot of things before
If this is love you've got to give me more" - The Beatles
So you go to see a movie. You're primed to love it.
In spite of every alarm bell going off in your head while you actually watch the picture, you still manage to convince yourself how much you love it.
You should have known better.
You sit there, jaw agape during an opening musical number on a Los Angeles highway traffic jam. There's nothing wrong with the idea, per se, but the song itself is so godawful and the choreography is so stock and clumsy that if the film had been made by another director instead of one you admire, you'd throw in the towel.
You also know that you're going to have to spend the movie staring at one of the most insufferable actors working in Hollywood today, not to mention an actress you admire (in spite of the fact that she reminds you of a carrot-topped Pekingnese).
And still you stay.
Because of the director.
You see, as dreadful as the opening musical number is (not always a good sign when you've come to see a musical), you forgive everything because at least the director is not without panache. Individual shots and camera moves during the sequence are, in and of themselves, first-rate.
So you persevere.
For writer-director Damien Chazelle.
And is it all for nought?
Yes and no.
You leave the movie. There are tears in your eyes, but you do not trust them. It's as if the movie itself has reached out to grind cheap-ass cooking onions into your ocular orbs. You feel like you're soaring, but for some reason you sense it's because someone has shoved a tube up your ass to fill you full of helium.
What do you do with these nagging thoughts?
You see the movie again.
And then, you know.
La La Land is just not very good. Taking its cue from the great Technicolor musicals from days of yore, Chazelle skillfully and stylishly (well, mostly) serves up an old fashioned singing-dancing extravaganza that rests on the narrative coat hanger of boy-meets-girl-boy-gets-girl-boy-loses-girl. The big diff here is that boy does not get girl back. They do, however, reunite in a genuinely show-stopping musical dream sequence and one is thankful for this departure from the norm. It works on a first helping, but when you see the picture again, you realize just how shoe-horned the whole sequence is. In fact, the entire movie feels shoe-horned.
That the movie chooses to utilize and recreate the tropes of great musicals within a contemporary context is just fine. Unfortunately, the contemporary context is Los Angeles, surely one of the most vapid and downright ugly cities in the world. Worse yet, it's set against the backdrop of the contemporary entertainment business - a world that has, for the most part become as indicative of Western Civilization's decline as a world in which Donald Trump has become a serious contender for the highest political office in America.
Granted, old Hollywood often used the entertainment industry as a setting for its musicals, most notably for me the magnificent Busby Berkeley musicals like 42nd Street, but the big difference is that the contemporary context of those movies is from a time when people could actually write great musical scores (unlike the grotesqueries of Justin Hurwitz's annoying melodies here) and when the studios were actually run by moguls who, for the most part, genuinely loved the product they were generating.
La La Land plunges us into a much different world and as such, suffers for it.
I'm happy to doff my hat to the Whiplash director's desire to take what is old and make the beautiful new again, but the detestably jejune world we (and by extension the characters) must live inside is borderline intolerable. At one point in the picture, Ryan Gosling's character is chided by his friend/nemesis Keith (so nicely played by John Legend one wonders if he's ever going to get his own musical to star in). The successful contemporary jazz band leader craps on Gosling's adherence to the greats of yesteryear instead of trying to find a way of taking the form further. He wisely notes that jazz was always about the "future".
But what does Gosling's character eventually do?
He hangs onto the "old" like a dog to a bone.
Then again, La La Land is all about following your dreams.
Because of this, what we have to suffer through is Emma Stone paying her monthly rent as an on-studio juice-bar clerk to support her burgeoning-actress habit who meets-cute with the insufferable Ryan Gosling as a bitter jazz musician who dreams of owning his own nightclub. Of course, they hate each other at first - he spills iced latte all over her shirt as she storms off to an audition and he unceremoniously brushes her off when she attempts to compliment his ivory tinkling - but all it takes for them to make the ultimate google-eyed connection is when she teases him at a vapid Hollywood party at which he's playing keyboards with an 80s tribute band. From here, he supports her dreams, she supports his, and in so doing it is inevitable for both to part ways.
So what are we left with? An interminably long feel-good musical that merely purports to make the old new again. Even this, however, is not all that original. It's been done before and so much better. The great Dennis Potter BBC mini-series Pennies from Heaven and Herbert Ross's astounding feature-length remake (which Pauline Kael acclaimed as "the most emotional movie musical I've ever seen") took what was old and made it new again by presenting the tropes with a contemporary perspective on the period in which the films (and film) were set. Sure, Chazelle is not looking back in quite the same way because he wants to utilize the tropes in terms of the here and now, but how are we to take any of this seriously given how empty the world actually is?
Well, maybe we're not supposed to take it seriously, but how then are we to at least respond seriously to Chazelle's aesthetic?
We don't. We can't. No matter how much we want to.
Thinking back on Pennies from Heaven, one can't help but note what great hoofers Steve Martin and Christopher Walken (yes, Christoper-fucking-Walken) are. Ryan Gosling's woeful galumphing in La La Land is a true abomination. One only need watch a few frames of Walken's striptease and compare it to anything Gosling stumbles through in La La Land to realize what folly it was to cast a leading man in a musical with tin ears for feet.
I almost unfairly chose to equate Gosling's miserable footwork with that of Buddy (Uncle Jed from The Beverly Hillbillies) Ebsen's hoofing in the early part of his career until I had to remind myself that Ebsen could dance Gosling into the oblivion he deserves.
Sorry Buddy. Gosling's shit-stomping can't begin to hold a candle to yours.
As for Chazelle's movie, a few decently-staged musical set pieces, in spite of Gosling's lead-footed incompetence and a mediocre score, just doesn't add up to anything special. I think it might boil down to the vapidity of the setting. One recalls how the great Val Lewton changed the very genre of horror by moving the act of scaring audiences into a world they recognized (The Cat People, The Seventh Victim). In doing the same thing, however, La La Land changes nothing. If anything it makes the old, the truly beautiful, little more than an empty vessel - a bauble of numbing nothingness.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ** Two-Stars
La La Land is a TIFF 2016 Special Presentation.