The week before last, we went to see La La Land; that is, the week before it failed to sweep the board in the BAFTAs. And honestly, I’m really not at all surprised that it failed. I’m still somewhat baffled that it won Best Film. I had been expecting what everyone had been telling me I would get (and indeed what the trailer suggested): a musical. And I’d thought that might be fun, because, god knows we needed some fun, especially as the film I’d seen most recently before that was Rogue One, with the world going phoom, and I’m fairly sure I am going to get that soon in real life. But whatever I got when I saw La La Land – and I suppose it was a sort of bitter-sweet anti-romcom, partaking very mildly of Notting Hill and Rock Follies, with possibly even a slight touch of A Star is Born, plus a helping of nostalgia for my one trip to LA – it was not a musical as I understand it. And certainly not the most memorable film I’ve seen recently.
Or, to put it another way, I’ve just finished watching Neil Brand’s three-part history of the musical on BBC 4, and I am still being earwormed by a song from Rent, a musical I’ve never seen. As we came out of La La Land, Paul Kincaid said to me, ‘can you remember any of the songs from it?’ and with the exception of the one constantly recurring piano figure, and a snatch of ‘City of Stars’, no, I couldn’t. Two weeks later, I can barely remember those, but the song from Rent is still playing insistently in my head. Oh, and I do remember that the ’80s band in La La Land covered A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me’, which is a great piece of pop music. So, some musical.
What went wrong? It’s hard to say. Looking at the film, I felt it was an idea of a memory of a musical. It looked like a musical but did not have the sensibility of a musical. In many respects, it reminded me most of The Artist, which paid homage to the era of the silent film but with a modern sensibility (though I think The Artist did it far better). And more broadly, it seemed to be presenting an idea of film that film people would recognise, not because it’s accurate, but because it fits with their romantic notion of the history of film. (The best part of Hugo, for example, is the fantastic little sequence detailing the history of Georges Mélies’ film-making, done in the style of a Georges Mélies film – it’s got damn all to do with most of the rest of the film but it is in love with the idea of film.)
I had slight doubts with the opening sequence (and if by some chance you’ve not yet seen La La Land, and you’ve also forgotten that Paper Knife always discusses the whole artefact, ending and all, and this bothers you, go and see the film, then return to this discussion). Everyone’s stuck on the freeway, because nothing signifies LA like being stuck on the freeway (not to mention its being a crunching great metaphor for both Seb’s and Mia’s artistic dreams), and for reasons that elude the viewer, they all get out of their cars to sing and dance, as you do. It’s a very ‘musical’ sort of opening. Except, as I thought at the time, it almost seems to parody the idea of the big musical number. There was … too much of everything, somehow, and the dancing and singing was just a little too … contrived and lumpy. (At which point, P. leaned over and said ‘Are you thinking of R.E.M’s “Everybody Hurts”?’ And, unsurprisingly, I was.) Was this, I wondered, going to be a film that mildly satirises the form it claims to be a part of? If it was satire, I suspect now it was entirely unintentional.
Of course, the two people not dancing are Seb and Mia, the protagonists. Almost the first thing we see Seb do is to carve up Mia’s car as the jam starts moving again, providing us with the usual filmic thumbnail of character – Seb, impatient, messy, blaring jazz music as he drives; Mia, thoughtful, methodical. As the film unfolds, these character traits are expanded. Each is focused on a dream. Seb is a jazz musician who wants to open his own club but who is currently selling his soul by performing for other people, and being an obnoxious ass about it. Mia is trying to break into film, and goes to audition after audition, in between working in a film-lot coffee house. We initially like Mia a lot more than we like Seb (Emma Stone is charming throughout). Seb is always broke, because he is always buying jazz artefacts, and losing his pianist gigs for not playing what is asked for; Mia appears to be solvent, just, though quite how, given the number of outfits she seems to own, I have no idea.
Over a period of a year or so, they bump into one another several times, generally in unfortunate circumstances before they finally get together. And as a couple they are lovely. Stone and Gosling do have great on-screen ‘chemistry’ (I hate that word – they, or she, at any rate, portray the burgeoning if spiky relationship really well. I gather they’ve been in several films together) and it’s possible to believe in them spurring one another on. It’s even possible to believe that because this is a contemporary musical they don’t take the conventional ‘musical’ route to fame and fortune. Seb signs on with a pop-oriented band in order to earn the money to fund his club. Mia believes he hates it, but I wondered if he wouldn’t always be sardonic about anything he did for money that wasn’t jazz (and that’s not the same as hating it). Seb encourages Mia to write and perform a one-woman show, which seemingly bombs, except that there was a film director in the audience and she gets a call-back. Although Mia is thinking of abandoning her dreams of acting, it is Seb who drives all the way to Boulder City to find her, and who then drives her back to LA to make sure she gets to the audition on time. We’ve already seen her at innumerable auditions, acting her socks off and getting nowhere by being someone else. This time she is permitted to be herself, and of course, she wins through. I spy a Moral. Possibly a double Moral as this is the most unselfish Seb has ever been.
Curiously, what we don’t get to see is how Seb finally achieves his dream of owning a jazz club. as has been noted, he is the world’s most irritating jazz fan. I’ve met him, you’ve met him, and yet there are moments when he does manage to convey his genuine passion in a way that makes you think, yes, ok, I’ll give it a go. (And actually, I do like the kind of jazz he drags Mia off to see – and the musicians are really great.) The last we see of him he is off on tour again, with the band he’s signed up with that is allegedly the new face of jazz (I don’t think so, though it’s good enough pop music) to earn money; how he gets from there to Seb’s is anyone’s guess, and this does seem to me to be a major flaw in the film, because while we come to know a lot about Mia, Seb remains curiously elusive. Or, rather, we’re directed to the idea of this being Seb and Mia’s film, but it’s probably really Mia’s film (see A Star is Born again). Having said which, we are of course meant to be delighted that he too achieved his rather more improbable dream. On the other hand, a tiny voice might whisper, when you have enough money and are famous, you can do anything you want, and it doesn’t matter how genuinely sincere you’ve always been about it. Sadly, this is a level of detail the film declined to go into, because, fluffy, fluffy, feelgood, but I wanted to know.
Well, I say ‘fluffy’, but you would think, would you not, that if a film is a musical, then the big song-and-dance numbers would feature a … well, a bit of a song and dance, wouldn’t you? To which, all I can say, is if you came for the singing and the dancing, and indeed Ryan Gosling playing the piano, this is probably not the film you’re looking for. Much publicity has been expended on Ryan Gosling’s learning to play the piano, which turns out to mean mostly Ryan Gosling being taught some flashy tricks to make it look like he is indeed a rootin’-tootin’ old-time jazz pianist. And he does it very well, because he’s an actor and that is what he is supposed to do. And because apparently he can actually play the piano already, having been in bands before. Which rather leads me to believe that Seb’s band persona is a more carefully studied thing that we might initially realise.
Rather less publicity has been expended on the fact that while Gosling and Stone are both required to sing and dance, because, musical, their singing is mostly only ok (though Stone’s big ‘call-back audition’ song is nicely done) and their dancing is perfunctory, to say the least. I have no idea how long they trained for that but it never really rose beyond adequate, and mostly relied on special effects to get past the fact that that they ever-so-slightly tap-danced, and occasionally sort-of-waltzed a bit. But it was all quite lovely, and as nutritious as cheap marshmallow. Not even candyfloss.
After this the film seems to have gone a bit meh. ‘Five years later’, the caption tells us, and we see Mia, now a successful actress (signified by super high heels – it’s a long way from her taking off her heels and putting on a pair of dance shoes to perform a spiky little duet with Seb, which I took as a pointed, or indeed flat, reference to the absurdity of women having to dance in high heels), coming into the coffee shop where she once worked, and seeing a new, star struck barista at the counter. Another cycle of hope is underway.
We quickly realise that she didn’t marry Seb but some other guy, they have a child, a baby-sitter, and all the trappings of fame and affluence. I admit I had an uncomfortable moment of flashback to Tales of the City, at the point where Mary Ann suddenly became famous and how oddly jarring that had seemed. And one night Mia and her husband find their way to a jazz club that Mia suddenly realises is Seb’s, and there he is on stage.
It is at this point that the one thing that makes this film in any way remarkable occurs: the extraordinary five-minute flashback/alternative timeline sequence which shows what would have happened if Seb and Mia had stayed together, going right back to the point where she first walks into a club, attracted by his music, and speaks to him, only to have him push past her. In the flashback they kiss, and a whole different timeline briefly unspools. I think it’s supposed to be arty and delightful, but it’s almost like it’s taunting the viewer: this is what you wanted, but you didn’t get it, because, hey, real life and all that, and you know you’re always saying you want films to be realistic, well, here you go, bittersweet. I suppose one could argue that this clearly signifies the film’s intent to undermine the form it professes to embrace, but I do wonder …
How do we read this? Seb’s regrets at throwing away a life with Mia for the jazz club of his dreams (which is clearly successful), or a pointed reminder that Mia has lost her freshness thanks to her success? Or what? Things never go quite the way you expect? Happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Or shame on you, viewer for wanting a proper happy ever after? I honestly have no idea but that clip destabilises the film in ways I’m not sure it meant to.
So, at the end of the film, we staggered out into the grey, damp Folkestone night, uncertain of what we had seen. We felt no great urge to dance through glittering wet streets, buoyed up by the delightful musical froth we had thought we would be seeing. If anything we walked home feeling rather sombre, which may have been the film’s actual intent, though if it was, it seemed a touch mean-spirited to suggest that dreaming was a kind of nostalgic luxury now, even if it is, and that for most of us it was always going to be beyond our reach – this felt more like a film about shutting down possibility rather than opening it up. Or maybe we just weren’t this film’s audience.
This is not to say it did not have its little moments of joy – Gosling and Stone are hardly the Bogart and Bacall of their generation but there were moments of delicious spikiness that I relished. Gosling does sardonic rather well in La La Land, and I liked him for that. Stone does quirky extremely well, but in a grown-up way that I appreciated. I enjoyed watching her respond while Gosling brooded. The ’80s party is probably the other really good thing in the film, though I also find myself poking mentally at a dinner party scene where everyone else is talking shop and Mia is sitting there in misery, because this is not the business she wants to be involved in.
I was somewhat cheered too by various small sequences which seemed to indicate some ethnic diversity and positivity – a wedding particularly struck me, and Gosling dancing with an older African American woman until her husband shooes him away, to dance with her himself – but they were small. I wonder too about things like Gosling as the only white man in a black band, and La La Land itself being portrayed as being essentially white. Which it is, as recent Oscar protests have pointed out – if this were a film fantasy, maybe it could have been a more positive kind of fantasy. And yes, I did notice the ‘girls together’ sequence and its very vague nod towards West Side Story but not enough. And I don’t suppose for a moment that there was much effort being made to address these imbalances.
But, honestly, if La La Land wins the Oscar for Best Film, something is wrong. On the other hand, I’ll not be at all surprised if it does, because I suspect a lot of voters will think it’s about the La La Land they know and love, though I’m not actually sure it is. Looking at the Wikipedia entry for La La Land, the usual assembly of snippets and gossip, I notice how keen the entry writer is to lay emphasis on all the things Chazelle and his team did to attempt to recreate the sense of a musical, which is super, but if we have to be told all this, because we don’t seem to see it, then yeah, I’d count that as a fail.
And yet, I watch the trailer, and look at the stills, and the film that might have been still makes me smile. And that’s really, really annoying.