La La Land and the trouble with modern film musicals

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“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.

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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.

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Thank you for your time, and your golden voice.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Remind you of something?

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Today in male privilege is bullshit:

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“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. 

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On the non-censorship of Letty Lynton (1932)

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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.

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Letty Lynton (1932)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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