Monday, January 9, 2017

La La Land

When the temperature is approaching zero and the skies are gray, the idea of spending a few hours in sunny Los Angeles might sound like a good one. And Damien Chazelle's new film, La La Land, satisfies that urge to a T. It's a quasi-romance on the order of A Star is Born, in which two aspiring artists fall in love—sort of. It also happens to be a musical. The songs are fairly catchy, and few human activities have greater power to lift the spirits than tap-dancing.

The opening number, a ten minute song-and-dance in the midst of a traffic jam on the LA freeway, appears to be a single take, and it establishes that this film is going to be full of creativity and whimsy. That impression is reconfirmed in many places along the way.

In short, La La Land has enough energy and surprise to dismiss from our minds the notion that it's striving slavishly to ape some lost film aesthetic. I'm a big fan of Hollywood musicals (not Broadway musicals)  and I've never seen a film quite like this. 

On the other hand, I'll have to admit that the opening sequence reminded me of a very, very long Target commercial.

In fact, La La Land is the kind of film in which you often find yourself thinking about the art director. The colors are super-bright, like a film from Pedro Almodóvar in his prime, though never to the point of outright garishness. Yet you look at a turquoise tumbler on a table, and notice how well it harmonizes with the bathroom curtains. That's not a good sign.

The most serious shortcoming of the film, however, is that the central romantic entanglement is tepid. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sustain a sort of antagonistic humor in the early going, but we don't feel much of an amorous countercurrent. They even sing a song together as they look out over the lights of Los Angeles in which they analyze this lack of feeling they share for one another. Anyone familiar with the energy and tension generated by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, or by Grant and Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, or even by John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century, must find this tone a little troubling. (Judy Garland and Gene Kelly? Kelly and Rita Hayworth? Grant and Jean Arthur? Astaire and Rogers? The list goes on and on.)

Gosling is largely to blame. He's sort of glum, and his repartee has an element of bitterness in it, based on the fact that no one shares his enthusiasm for mainstream jazz. When he eventually joins a band to start earning some real money, we're supposed to take it as a sell-out to pop commercialism ... but I sort of liked it. And anyway, musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, and Chick Corea (jazz greats one and all) made the same choice back in the early 1970s, during the glory years of fusion. Hey! A guy's gotta eat.

Things do start to click between the two eventually, but the strongest impetus they exchange is one of encouragement and self-sacrifice. Gosling wants Stone to follow her dream, while she wants him to do the same. That's all very noble, and it might even be wise, but it doesn't generate much entertainment heat. And neither of these aspiring artists should be surprised that if and when their careers blossom, they aren't going to be seeing much of each other.

But such concerns, which force us to leave aside superlatives when discussing La La Land, take nothing away from the film's value as a divertimento. Singing, dancing, color, romance, the pursuit of a dream: what's not to like? The ending scenes work, I think, but what happens "in the end" is less important than what's happening scene by scene, and this makes La La Land the kind of film that would, I suspect, be very easy to watch more than once.


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