To casual moviegoers, musicals are such dowdy relics that the only way for a hotshot to direct a successful one in 2016 is to emulate the chestnuts audiences didn’t watch or rent the first time. It took me a couple hours after the screening for La La Land to realize that while I’d had a good time and wasn’t bored the movie was at best a sustained okay. Beneath the wondrous color palette and the charm of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is a wee thing, a committed try whose umbilical cord remains attached to a Golden Age worth revisiting but not replicating.
In a lift recognizable to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg fans, the opening dance sequence establishes La La Land‘s governing principle: making do in a metropolis by reveling in its awfulness, in this case drivers jumping out of cars to dance to “Another Day in the Sun” on interstates as an escape from bumper to bumper traffic and the punishing morning light. Writer-director Damien Chapelle introduces Sebastian (Gosling), a musician who in his mind is slumming in eighties cover bands (one amusing sequence shows Sebastian in fabulous a-ha costume tapping a keyboard to “Take On Me”); what he should be doing, he says, is playing jazz piano. Just as determined is Mia (Stone), a barista to the stars who would rather be one. After her car is towed at a party, she walks home, stumbling for a drink into a jazz club. She sees Sebastian, whom she’d glimpsed on the freeway earlier in the movie, getting berated by the manager (J.K. Simmons doing J.K. Simmons) for playing hot licks. The next meet-cute is at a party in the hills. Returning to their cars the couple succumb to the inevitable: their first pas de deux as a couple-to-be.
Not their last either, although forgive me for not remembering them. I expect musicals to boast songs worth remembering. The problems don’t end there, however. Adept at sustaining the intensity of character arcs, as he demonstrated in 2014’s Whiplash, Chazelle has a childhood prodigy’s conception of work. Conviction leads to artistic success. Sebastian and Mia’s doggedness shouldn’t just be respected – it should result in a gig as the new Thelonious Monk and the landing of an acting part as the new Emma Stone, respectively. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that Gosling and Stone dance poorly and the songs contain nary a memorable hook or phrase: the couple is having such a good time. Parents enjoy watching their children enjoying themselves; it’s not as much fun for the rest of us.
With the exception of the western, I can’t think of another genre so beholden to its past than the musical. New ones can’t break free. I want more movie musicals, original ones, not adaptations like Les Miserables or Chicago. Jacques Demy, Chazelle’s most pronounced influence, spent a career writing and directing them. Film fans know The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but the ways in which 1967’s The Young Girls at Rochefort and 1982’s Une Chambre en Ville show their young leads grappling with their sexual and political identities adduce the fecund uses to which the form can be stretched. La La Land, however, reflects only itself, or at best its lineage. It acts as if staying-true-to-yourself wasn’t a worn cliché that should have gone the way of the Charleston. I suppose it’s Chazelle’s idea of a yuk to cast Legend as the musician obsessed with expanding his audience, as the anti-traiditonalist – John Legend, the Wynton Marsalis of R&B. Like Marsalis in the eighties, Sebastian isn’t interested in jazz so much as the glamor of jazz: how cool men look in a slim cut suit, the gleam of tapered fingers on black keys, the open mouths of audiences following an improvisation. His purity is a joke. Similarly, the play that Mia writes herself, into which she pours her accumulated frustrations, is, of course, autobiographical crap (it never occurs to filmmakers that writers have imaginations). If Chazelle had used Sebastian and Mia’s phony convictions as comic material, uncovering its shallow roots, La La Land would have made good on its title: a movie about beautiful self-deluded kooks. And Gosling, using his wanna tough-palooka voice, delivers a particular line about the state of jazz (“It’s dying, but not on my watch!”) as if he were Dirty Harry vowing to protect the weak. We would have laughed with them.
Yet I feel no ill will towards La La Land. I hope it inspires better musicals, better songs less indebted to the idea of how songs in musicals should sound. Stone and Gosling have never sparked so determinedly, hence my disappointment that in 2016 a musical has to be G-rated to hit the G-spot. 2007’s little seen Les Chansons d’Amour had no qualms about generating heat between Louis Garrel and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, climaxing in a balletic bedroom sequence. La La Land by contrast is as dangerous as sheet music. Contemporary devotees of the musical needn’t be as chaste as Gene Kelly; it’s not 1951.