La La Land and the trouble with modern film musicals


“I’m sick of these artificial barriers between the musical and the drama,” says the lunatic theatre producer Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanon) in Vincente Minnelli’s much loved musical The Band Wagon (1953), and it’s as though Damien Chazelle is thinking the exact same thing. La La Land, Chazelle’s most recent film after his hit Whiplash last year, ticks all the boxes as a romantic drama and an aesthetically pleasing exercise in entertainment with big-name stars and has, rather controversially, been getting a lot of awards season attention. It is a big question as to whether this reimagining of the classical musical deserves so many accolades. Chazelle very consciously attempts to recapture the essence of the film musical that has all but disappeared with the illusion of a united old Hollywood type, and in some ways, he achieves this. In other ways, it is a failure that does nothing new with the form and by attempting to reconfigure it, simply demonstrates how impossible that is. Sadly, it also champions the artistic achievement of its male lead, giving its female lead only a shallow journey. Certainly, this is not without historical precedent; a lot of films of earlier eras have done this. But La La Land, in its narrative and format, seems quite regressive.


As a self-reflexive musical, La La Land tries to have it both ways by belonging to the past, as a glamourous and classic musical, and the contemporary moment, updating musical and narrative style to give it some air of relevance to modern times. In many ways, it fails. It is, more or less, a pastiche of past ideas, from Hollywood’s glamorous MGM productions and Jacques Demy’s French musicals, to Demy’s own love letter to Los Angeles, Model Shop (1969). It’s bright and brightly coloured, and it must reference a scene in The Band Wagon when Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse wear four shades of off-white, when its two protagonists do the same. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a disillusioned pianist who mourns the roots of jazz that have been trampled over by the double-headed monster of modern music and consumerism, wants to continue its legacy, and has a strictly old-style vision. He wants to honour what he calls, desperately, the revolutionary work of the classic jazz artists. His old bandmate Keith (John Legend), whom he doesn’t seem to like but for some reason listens to regardless, recites some pointedly profound wisdom: “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?”


If this is meant to be a veiled reference to Chazelle’s film, it doesn’t work; the commentary is far from subtle. Some aspects do work; for instance, it quite successfully utilises the musical trope of bricolage, not only in the way that its characters move about in the scenery, but in the way its scenery becomes part of the soundtrack too. Car horns are a particularly big star in the film, and at one point early on become a musical note, a sonic transition between spaces and times. The CinemaScope is a nice touch, and Chazelle emphasizes the width of his lens by first mimicking a square aspect ratio as the film begins, with the CinemaScope brand gradually revealed as the aspect radio widens. Yet even though the quotations and homages to other musicals can be nice, not everything works. After a series of aborted meet-cutes, Sebastian realizes a mutual attraction with struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) at a repertory cinema screening of Rebel Without A Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955), after which they enact some sort of homage at the Griffith Observatory, including a fantasy dance sequence that is, rather starkly, without passion.


While marketed most predominantly as a delightful love story, La La Land orbits around the struggles of sacrificing your dreams to live life, and alternately, using music or art to drown out the pain of existence. But Chazelle is also clearly invested in this belonging to a canon where music cannot override all of life’s struggles. This is a musical with a realist aesthetic, in that some of the musical numbers are part of the narrative; as a pianist, that is Sebastian’s domain. As film scholar Richard Dyer writes of the Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933), the “thrust of the narrative is towards seeing the show as a ‘solution’ to the personal, Depression-induced problems of the characters.” Sebastian’s artistic dream is positioned as his personal savior, but in order to maintain the male as the key protagonist here, Mia’s solution is shifted to fame rather than personal fulfillment, which is an ultimately cynical presentation of its own world. Chazelle never invests in Mia’s actual achievements or artistic peak of her career; beyond auditions, we see only an image of her fame, where the likeness of her face is billboard-sized on a Los Angeles street corner. Is the representation of Mia’s ultimate goal only to ascend to a spectacular beauty equivalent to the giant Ingrid Bergman wallpaper in her bedroom? Given that’s all we see of her as star, that is really quite disappointing (but by no means surprising) for a film made in 2016.


The very problem with Chazelle’s whole concept of upgrading an historical style, is that he doesn’t really upgrade it. Sebastian’s obsession with the dying genre of jazz music is part of the plot, but for financial reasons, he concedes and becomes part of a jazz-funk group whose live performance is, basically, a stylistic shambles of overproduced flourishes. Gosling has a fair handle on his singing voice, but Stone does not, and hers cannot match the demands of a musical that tries to be big, like this one. While this is Gosling and Stone’s third pairing and their second to harken back to an older era – Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer, 2013) brought them together as a sergeant falling for the moll of the gangster he’s enlisted to bring down – they are just not the stars to be cast here. Perhaps trying to recapture the musical moment as a once-off is impossible, because the whole point of the classical musical is that stars were hired for their voices, trained to dance and perform, and generally groomed for musicals. Musical stars existed in a vast studio network of musical production, but here the actors just seem unpolished. Chazelle’s creation of character and the central creative and romantic relationship is, for instance, much weaker than achieved by Martin Scorsese in his own bittersweet tribute to the musicals of his youth, New York New York (1977), which was much better at exploring life’s darkness even in the face of musical reverie. Someone with a sharper knack for referencing history while creating her own world and narrative is Anna Biller, whose Viva (2007) contains a finale that visually and musically recalls Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953), while the film makes reference to Demy’s love of that imagery in The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). If you want to hear men talk about jazz and helplessly watch while everyone has their heart broken, Paris Blues (Martin Ritt, 1961) is a better choice.


Taking it as a pure exercise in aesthetics, it’s easy to fall for La La Land, to get dazzled by the music and the lights as you would be by Los Angeles itself, it doesn’t reach the heights of musical reverie that you would hope for. Manohla Dargis at the New York Times writes, “this must have been what it was like to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers during the Great Depression.” It’s true that Gosling and Stone dance in spectator shoes against a beautiful panoramic dusk and there’s a fantasy sequence at the end that reinforces the musical as utopian wish-fulfillment, although I can’t help but feel that this is more a commentary on the current disastrous political climate than the film itself. The most important thing about the film, though, is that it (perhaps a little clunkily) acknowledges its influences in the text, and is absolutely plastered with notifications of the films and moments of cinema that inspired it. This is something absent in other modern editions of the musical spectacle like the sprawling television series Glee. Chazelle at least tips his hat to the history he so adores, and namedrops Hoagy Charmichael, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk. (Parker liked eating chicken, says Sebastian while somewhat desperately explaining his fondness for chicken and jazz to Mia, “That’s why they called him the Bird.”) But there’s little reason here to watch this film rather than the films being referenced, or to listen to its music rather than the music it is inspired by. If anything, by trying to reimagine or recreate the allure of that old film musical magic, La La Land only proves how very impossible it is in today’s climate, or at least within the demands of today’s star, studio, and publicity system. Gosling and Stone are big stars, with questionable musical clout, but they are not big singers. For these movies to work, the voices and magic needed to be big; it needed to be something special and unique. A musical’s musical moments should be vibrant, but whatever energy was behind the drum solos in Whiplash seems drained here. “Sometimes your dreams get broken in pieces, but it doesn’t matter at all,” sings Liza Minnelli in New York, New York. And she’s got the voice that makes you believe her: as long as the vinyl keeps spinning, so the world keeps turning ‘round.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Thank you for your time, and your golden voice.


I once wrote Leonard Cohen a letter. I didn’t get a reply so I’ll never know if he read it, but I can only hope he did. He meant so much to me, and to so many of us.

In 2009, my dad and I went to see Leonard Cohen at Hanging Rock, and it was one of the most meaningful performances I’d ever seen. I would see Leonard again, but that one was special. Two weeks later, Black Saturday gutted a nearby region of Victoria. Many houses and lives were lost. My parents’ country house was destroyed.

Leonard donated the money from that Australian tour to the victims of Black Saturday. He’d said that he loved the region and he wanted to offer help, so he donated money he probably needed himself. I often think of his act of generosity and compassion when I listen to his music, or when I return to the house that we rebuilt. I wrote him a letter because I wanted him to know how much that meant to me, and to my dad.

What a beautiful man. I’m so sad that he’s gone. We still have his voice, and what he meant to us. At least we have that.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Walter Neff’s apartment

I had a lovely surprise this morning. I was running in Los Feliz near my hotel (it’s cheap, but I can see the Hollywood sign from my room), and, while I didn’t expect it, I began to feel familiar with the area. Eventually, I ran past a street name I recognised. N Kingsley Drive: site of Walter Neff’s apartment. I’d seen it before, when I was in Los Angeles in 2013 and did a full sweep of Double Indemnity locations, but this morning I went down to it again. Such a nice feeling, to have such easy access to these icons that are so important to me.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dana Andrews & Cornel Wilde

Watching Shockproof (Douglas Sirk, 1949) — which sets itself up with a pretty great Bradbury Building cameo — I was thinking: Cornel Wilde is like a duller Dana Andrews type. And then, this shot happened.

2015-08-27 11.04.37 pm

Remind you of something?

Annex - Andrews, Dana (Laura)_01

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Today in male privilege is bullshit:


“In The Talk of the Town Arthur shared top billing with Grant, their names placed just above Colman’s in the credits. But she was a distant third in terms of pay. Grant received $106,250 to Colman’s $100,000, while Arthur, still in Harry Cohn’s doghouse, was cut back to $50,000.”

— John Oller, Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew, p137. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On the non-censorship of Letty Lynton (1932)


I revisited Mark A. Viera’s wonderful book Sin in Soft Focus. He elaborates on the production of Letty Lynton, although not without some judgement too (the murder “was excused by a woman’s need to defend her honour, even if she had tossed it overboard many reels earlier”). Apparently, in the lead-up, Jason Joy warned MGM that their script was too similar to Barnes and Sheldon’s play: “The woman in both has affairs because of the sex urge, not out of love.” It violated the Code in its philosophy. Such an approach to philosophy, says Viera, “made money, so Thalberg persisted.”

Apparently British censors didn’t pass the film because it “justified homicide without penalty.” In America, it was both despised for its lack of morals and lapped up for its honesty and support of equality. And now, we love it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Letty Lynton (1932)


The first glimpse we get of Letty Lynton (Joan Crawford) is when she’s in the middle of a crowded dance floor, with a man. She says to him that she wants to stay with him, to be with him and eat lotus and poppy. These symbols of “Orientalism” are referenced to signify the decadence of Letty’s lifestyle, and signify the man, Emile (Nils Asther, often cast a pesky “Other”), as a source of . She’s a bored socialite, on extended hiatus in South America, indulging in opiates and foreign lovers.

They leave the club, and she says she’s thinking. “Silly business,” says her lover. “I think I’ve had about enough,” is her response. She’s clearly been trying to leave him for a while, and she tries again. Emile follows her to her apartment, and she tells him she is leaving, again. He resists, says that she will stay and he will make her love him more and more. She glances at him, and replies, “no”.  Simple as all that. Still, she succumbs to his charms once more (and with a moustache like that who can blame her?), for one more night (quoting Macbeth, of all things), and the next scene is shown escaping on a tender going out to the ship at sea, where she proclaims to her dedicated maid, “I feel as though I’m escaping from a burning building.” (There’s a few great other lines, too. “You know I never kiss anyone before one o’clock,” she says to another suitor in South America.)

She meets Jerry (Robert Montgomery) on the ship, and she is fast drawn to him. While in conversation, she says that she wishes she were a man. It’s not an uncommon for women in pre-Code films to express this wish. It’s demonstrative of a desire for more power than their sex traditionally offers, a drive for more freedom and personality. Even with this wish, though, she proclaims, “I never make any rules.”

A classic pre-Code woman, she says, “I haven’t been steering my course towards marriage, very much,” she says, resisting his approach, but she knows she will follow him. They kiss, then they’re engaged, and it’s all on. Off the ship in New York, her old beau finds out and tries to win her back, kissing her against her will, so Letty gets a good slap in there. The slap is one of Joan’s specialties. He blackmails her into his grasp, promising that he’ll expose their love affair to her new fiancé if she doesn’t. So she packs some poison, goes to his hotel, and asked for a glass of wine. She tries once more to beg for freedom, for the chance to marry her true love, but Emile won’t let her go. So she pours poison into her own glass, but to top off his arrogance, he takes the glass as she reaches for it and downs the whole thing.


Joan Crawford’s eyes are incredible in this scene. Earlier, when she made the decision to poison herself, her face and eyes blanked over with a terrifying determinism, a deathly blank stare. It happens again here as she reaches for her glass, then watched Emile drink his death. She waits, screams that it was meant for her but she’s glad he drank it, then leaves the room as the poison takes effect. She watches from behind a curtain as a waiter clears the tray from the hotel room, assuming Emile to be blackout drunk, and in a touch of humour, takes a glass of champagne for himself, too. (Clarence Brown’s direction is classy, typical of the time and yet so much more. Each placement of the camera suits the mood.) Letty then makes her escape from the room, wiping away her fingerprints, apparently planning to pretend she was never at the scene. Is it true that she never meant to poison him? We can’t be sure, but she seems genuinely sad, and ready to sacrifice her life if it means relief from unhappiness.


Suspecting her of murder, the police detective doesn’t only target her for the crime, but accuses her of living with the man for months! It’s as though the shame in that is worse than murder. That’s when it gets really heated. Jerry sticks up for her, gallantly (and to save his own face), “we’re not living in the early nineties” (those conservative times!). Letty Lynton is a true pre-Code diamond because Letty not only kills her former lover and gets away with it, but because she gets away with it because her new lover and her own mother provide false alibis, knowing she must be guilty. Upon realising that she’s a “tainted” woman, Jerry sticks up for her, stays with her, and they marry to combine their fortunes.

Letty Lynton was released, but has been widely unavailable since the 1940s, when a lawsuit decided against MGM that portions of the screenplay were plagiarised. (I’m sure its status as a pre-Code didn’t help either.) While adapted from a novelised version of a real-life murder case, Letty Lynton (written by Belloc Lowndes), was deemed too close to the play Dishonored Lady (1930) by Margaret Ayer Barnes and Robert Sheldon. Dishonored Lady was released as a film in 1947, a vehicle for Hedy Lamarr.  If you get a chance to see it, consider yourself lucky, and make sure you do.

What’s more, Letty Lynton is famous for this dress, with the puffy sleeves. But isn’t the other much more incredible? The costume design by Adrian, who dressed Joan Crawford often, is pretty excellent.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lawless (John Hillcoat, 2012)

“It is not the violence that sets men apart. It is the distance he is prepared to go.”

Lawless is not a great film. In fact it takes about thirty minutes for the film to hit its stride, shortly after Forrest (Tom Hardy) recites the above quote, to his brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and a change in the pace of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score.

The story isn’t much new, and the editing is strange at times. It confuses perspective, rather than assisting it, giving it depth. It’s slow and it’s stagnating, which doesn’t quite work. I was missing the speed of Boardwalk Empire, which itself went so quickly at times it was hard to follow. Yet that was part of the point of Boardwalk Empire, and the show’s speed assisted it. Here, it’s confusing anyway.

A voiceover in the second half, that he’d heard there were problems in the country but was having the time of his life, is accompanied by a shot of homeless families waiting by the side of the highway, a billboard in the background declaring “highest standard of living”. It’s the failure of the American Dream motif, shoved right up in our faces. Perhaps it’s meant to be funny. In fact, maybe the whole selection of cliches are meant to be humorous, but the film doesn’t own its humour. It’s obvious, it’s clunky, it’s ludicrous. There’s a strange imbalance of restrained and saturated realism.

Then there’s the introduction to the final sequence where all the main men are “preparing” themselves. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a man preparing for battle on screen but it would certainly be more times than I’ve seen a woman…putting on makeup, for example. Speaking of, that didn’t even happen here, although Mia Wasikowska did change into a new dress, and Jessica Chastain showed her collarbone.


There’s a quite nice moment, after Forrest has had his throat slit. He falls and stares, rigid, up at the moon, which compares to the headlights of Maggie’s car as she drives back to save him. It’s nice; nothing special.

Jessica Chastain is probably the only thing worth seeing this for, but maybe see something which she’s actually *in* more of instead.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Barkleys of Broadway (Charles Walters, 1949)


The Barkleys of Broadway (Charles Walters, 1949) contains some expectedly poor-taste jokes, like one that men find it hard to tell women apart at parties, which is actually rather funny in the way the joke is executed through the film although I have a problem with it in principal – but, you know, showbiz. I suppose that Oscar Levant can pull of pretty much anything, including being a deadpan, womanising producer and a killer on the piano keys. And that a wife is always more submissive to a man’s mood than vice versa. But Billie Burke is superb as a party-maker, especially in the first scene where she wears a pink dress much like hers in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), but without so much tulle.

While MGM’s The Barkleys of Broadway is almost nothing compared to Astaire and Rogers’ 1930s musicals at RKO, it’s great to see them dancing together again. One of the non sequitur dance numbers in their show, “My One and Only Highland Fling”, is a hoot. But their tap dance rehearsal to “Bouncin’ the Blues”, when Rogers is wearing a marvellous pair of slacks, is just superb. In over two minutes, there are only two cuts, not including one after five seconds of intro music. The first cut takes us to a tighter medium close up of the couple during a spin move, and the second cuts to a crane shot that gives perspective on the stage space and then pans down to level with the dancers. It’s really a breathtaking scene, and I just couldn’t take my eyes off Rogers — not unusual, as I mostly watch her in their numbers, but she just so suits this relaxed tap feel. It’s my favourite moment in this film, when Rogers and Astaire never quite reach the same level of charm as in their earlier films.

Then there a ludicrous scene where an eccentric European artist reveals his impression of the Barkleys as…a pancake in a frying pan. The artist suggests that Josh (the pan, naturally) is in his impression like Svengali — “the man with the beard” he remembers, as he strokes an imaginary one on his own chin — but what it is really suggestive of is Ivan the Terrible. Eisenstein’s, of course. Dinah is the pancake, because she’s shaped by her husband’s excessive talents or something as uninspiring as that.

Josh is a pig, telling Dinah that she’s talentless. They separate, they get lonely, and a plot of deceit begins which of course is ultimately forgiven. Astaire sings George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”, and they dance it beautifully, repeating a musical union from Shall We Dance (1937) when they didn’t dance!

Josh gets all gallant at the end, and says that Dinah could be great in the part — any part at all — but that Jacques doesn’t know how to direct her. So he wants to help her, and so the final act begins. But see, he was the one being the arsehole to her about her talents in the first place, so I just don’t buy it. He never apologises, but they reach an understanding and fall in love again, which in the end, is the utopian goal of the musical that breeds such desire for its own ending. As entertainment, anyway, in the way Richard Dyer sees it. (In large part, in the sense that the film presents complex feelings “in a way that makes them seem uncomplicated, direct and vivid,” apart from an intriguing attention to the fact that Dinah and Josh are merely separated and this is unpleasant for them both.) Earlier in the film, Jacques criticises Dinah’s acting ability and approach to her part, scowling, “This is not a musical comedy, it’s a legitimate play.” It’s the ultimate jerk move, because he has cruel intentions. But Rogers is not actually a great dramatic actress, or at least, not a great melodramatic actress — ie. when she is called on to make dramatic turns in comedies. Early in this film when she has to cry, I’m reminded of her joyous but somewhat pained stint as a “teenager” in Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952), when all she really does is pout and whinge. In something like Storm Warning (Stuart Heisler, 1951), both Rogers and Doris Day are excellent.

In the end when there are multiple misunderstandings and pretending while the other person knows, and doesn’t know, and double pretending, and then one of those final killer lines when Ginger says she doesn’t want to do any more plays because “no more worrying about the plot” which could be easy to take offence to given the line listed above, but it’s all in good fun and yes, kind of true. Apologies to Richard Dyer for over-simplifying his argument. I was at a conference in the USA in October, and Brent Phillips presented work from his then-upcoming book on Walters, Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance, and I’m really looking forward to reading it.

Posted in cinema, musical theatre, stars | Leave a comment

Film Noir Dreamscapes

I stopped a film noir midway through this afternoon to have a nap, and had a dream to rival one of Adrian’s! I entered into the dream smack bang embroiled in the slowly brewing action, involved with a man in a sharp suit, and a large bag filled with a lot of money. Clearly, these plot elements entered my subconscious directly from the film I had stopped, Killer Bait a.k.a. Too Late For Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949). The film “stars” Lizabeth Scott as the femme fatale who has an okay role as a woman who drives her own life, murdering her husband while desperate for money, but can’t act for peanuts. (“You know, tiger? I didn’t know they made ’em as beautiful as you, and as smart. Or as hard,” says Dan Duryea, absolutely one of my favourite eager slime balls and an actor that Farran Nehme describes as “one of the movies’ most reliable sadists.”) I had been given a large brown leather gladstone bag filled with money, in an underground car garage in somebody else’s apartment building, although the details of my obtaining this bag are hazy. I’m sure that’s what I told the crook who was after me, too. I met this man later that night, or perhaps early the next morning, on the corner of a street, tightly surrounded by canted buildings and streets, and I new he was about to shoot me. I stuttered, and eyed the gun he held at his right hip. I said, “I’ll never give you the money,” and then people started appearing on the streets in their dressing gowns, anxious to eye off the disturbance in the neighbourhood. And he couldn’t kill me in plain sight! His gun disappeared and I ran. At home, in my small apartment, I plugged in and opened my laptop, as I most often do, and went to work cooking up a recipe of explosives (I hope with several slugs of whiskey at my disposal). I looked up minutes later to see that above the table, the devices attached power system had caught fire as it had overheated. I grabbed whatever glasses of water I could from the clutter on the bench, refilling a few more and put out most of the fire, slapping the table hard to abolish the final simmering flames. Then I looked down to the floor, and a mysterious steam was drifting from the cords at the power source, blocking out whatever power source there might have been from visibility. It was almost something like the heavy fog from Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981), or Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955), something sinister brewing from an evil source. Perhaps Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Surely this was the end of me?!

2014-12-16 04.10.47 pm

But then I awoke. I’m sure this dream was also influenced by my leaving our house yesterday due to visible smoke from a nearby (very small) bushfire — I don’t often have dreams so elaborate or vivid. When I awoke from this dream I had an update from the CFA that the fire in question was expected to be controlled by this evening; also, to a large storm that had descended on the city. Strong, loud wind is careening outside my building, and the sea has changed colour from a sparkling blue to a dark slate, as it does when the blue sky disappears and clouds turn grey. Clusters of sea vapour are forming above the ocean’s surface, carrying with the wind. Hopefully this arrival of a storm won’t mean more lightning-activated bush or grass fires, although I think a few more have started. Anyway, here’s to more vivid, noirish dreams like this one!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment