“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.