You know that a tiresome backlash is coming when a film vacuums up truck loads of awards and still wants more. It could be seen as cynical to criticise a film which ostensibly aims to convey positivity and goodness but, for me, there might be cynicism within the movie itself. ‘La La Land’ started demonstrating what could be achievable in making a modern musical….but then seemed to turn the other way, possibly through a loss of cojones, perhaps through a hard-nosed grab for awards and box office dollars. The film is actually good, probably even very good, but there was a crushing sense of disappointment at the end: its ‘what might have been’ montage denouement works on more than one level.
In regards to awards, the finale of that season of dinners, speeches, wine and pills (and, this year, screeds against the orange, short-fingered, know-nothing buffoon; holing up in the White House and bluffing his way through life) is the Oscars at the end of the month and ‘La La Land’ has a mind-boggling 14 nominations. Quite an achievement for a genre film.
While the Golden Globes splits ‘Best Motion Picture’ into one version for ‘Drama’ and one version for ‘Musical or Comedy’, no such branching is for Oscar: it’s a one size fits all. As any fule kno, drama is the thing that Oscar likes. There hasn’t been a outright comedy as Best Picture since the win of ‘Annie Hall’, 39 years ago and only one musical Best Picture, for ‘Chicago’, in the 49 years since ‘Oliver!’. For why? Perhaps it’s that genre films tend to be seen as too simplistic, as too ‘inside the box’ of its genre demands? Genres normally are identified by stylistic elements and so it’s almost like a film has its work done by making sure those elements are included. It’s an unfair assessment as drama also includes its own signs and touchstones but drama is, I think, interpreted as the more serious, the more adult and, therefore, the greater, higher achievement.
Perhaps, though, it’s the other way and dramas are the safest bet; that musicals or comedies are the far braver works, on the whole? (It’s obviously a generalisation and many examples can point to the contrary). Dramas tend to work on a ‘sliding scale’ of enjoyment for people: viewers can deduce where a film is trying to go pretty easily and the only point of contention is how it gets there. Comedies and musicals, however, either work or they don’t: full stop. You’re either in all the way with your willing suspension of disbelief – at the humans who sing, dance and tell jokes – or everything seems so stupid and crass. ‘People like this stuff? God, this is terrible.’ ‘La La Land’ seemed to want to square this circle. It played as a musical for perhaps the first hour then it shape-shifted into something else.
Maybe I’m the problem? For the first hour, I found myself thinking that I couldn’t wait for the cynical rash of musicals that would get made in the wake of this total joy of a film. The two leads like seemed so right together; so convincing as a couple that I thought that I’d follow them everywhere. Circle-jerk TV producers talk about ‘chemistry’ when they parachute some man in to sit on a Morning Television sofa to share leaden ‘banter’ with a pretty female host, and fill time until the next advert break and get paid thousands and thousands to do so but maybe there is something to what they say? See ‘The Adjustment Bureau’. A rubbish film, really, but the way that Matt Damon and Emily Blunt create this couple before your eyes is like a magic show. They carry the film with total ease; it’s like a film within a film watching these two getting to know each other, drifting away and coming back within all of the cack-handed sci-fi mishegas that gets thrown on top.
Some argue that while Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone convince as a couple, their singing and dancing leaves something to be desired. I didn’t agree. As with the brilliant Woody Allen film ‘Everyone Says I Love You’, the relative scruffiness of the dancing and inexactitude of the singing makes the piece more endearing, somehow.
In preparation for viewing ‘La La Land’, I saw a documentary on Gene Kelly: mind-blowing stuff in relation to some of his routines. Although Kelly loved Fred Astaire, Kelly thought that Astaire danced for the aristocracy while Kelly danced for the proletariat. The experts in the documentary identified the differences: how Astaire glided effortlessly whereas Kelly danced from his lower body, hammering his way through routines with some brute force underneath his cleverness and sophistication. The point being that Kelly gave the impression of ‘every man’, that anyone could do this. Obviously, Gosling and Stone aren’t on the same plain as Kelly but a similar sense got connoted; of this being every man and every woman.
All sailed along in La La Land until the dinner scene which, while excellent in itself, signaled the film’s pivot into something else. Outside of Mia’s audition for the Paris job towards the end, ‘La La Land’ came with a big chunk of its second half running time devoted to becoming an indie romantic drama rather than a musical. Was it because director maybe lost his courage? Would a true musical have come off as looking too cheesy, what with its campy ‘jazz hands’ and stuck-on happy endings? Was it in trying to avoid those pitfalls that Damien Chazelle purposely mutated his own film? That’s how it seemed to me; like a loss of artistic nerve. And there are differing forms of happy endings. In ‘An American In Paris’, the lead ends up with the woman of his dreams but, as someone pointed out on its commentary track, it came with some The Graduate-style ambiguity too, a sense of: “So, what now?” for the protagonists.
Maybe it was more that a true musical would have been adjudged as less creatively worthy so tacking into the realm of romantic drama is what has triggered the cavalcade of awards? It’s only my impression of the feedback that I’ve managed to read but often I’ve seen comments along the lines of: “I don’t normally like musicals but I loved this.”. The film itself does work as a piece but I don’t know whether it can be admired as a musical because musicals, and comedies, have to dare to fail. And some do. Miserably. While some gloriously succeed. ‘La La Land’ seemed like a triumph in hedging bets; a victory for artistic cowardice.
Another element to the movie’s double-dealing is in its aforementioned visual montage at its climax. Sometimes one reads frustrating stories of clowns who ask for their money back since some small scene in a film’s trailer, cut months ahead of a film’s release so still not guaranteed of a place in the final cut, doesn’t turn up in the finished film. Or, while some – like myself – would have sold their hair and teeth to get tickets to see Kate Bush’s Hammersmith gigs in 2014 and been grateful if she just played the spoons or made fart noises with her armpit, others who did come across such highly-prized tickets then had the gall to complain because she didn’t perform pop hits like ‘Wuthering Heights’. I normally like and respond to the unexpected. I don’t like having everything telegraphed and spoon fed to me beforehand. It shows respect for the audience, I think. Like the makers of ‘A Dangerous Method’, who wrong-footed viewers by making Michael Fassbender’s Carl Jung seem to act malevolently in the trailer: smacking his cane against a coat as a prelude to some sadomasochism? No, the film showed that he was just cleaning Keira Knightley’s character’s coat of any creepy-crawlies on her behalf. And yet, having said all of that, the trailers to ‘La La Land’:
They all give an impression of extended, brightly-coloured, musical sequences that, in the event, only appear in the ‘what might have been’ visual montage. In other words, the film ends with a faux-trailer for a film that you wish that you’d watched instead. Like, for me, with ‘T2: Trainspotting’, a movie shoots itself in the foot by giving glimpses of a better film, one that’s out of the viewer’s reach. Films like ‘The Red Shoes‘ and ‘An American In Paris‘ are, I think, alluded to by La La Land’s climax but La La Land only runs through a quick taster for a full meal that you never receive while ‘The Red Shoes’ and ‘An American In Paris’, conversely, really sock it to you with 15 minute and 17 minute hardcore music climaxes. It’s like ‘La La Land’ was just ‘too cool for school’ to lower themselves to actually giving a musical film a proper musical ending.
And yet I can still see why the film’s loved by many and will probably clean up at the Oscars. Maybe I should try to look at it the other way, as a romantic indie drama which starts out as a musical for a while before real life sets in? That would be feasible, perhaps, if the world and his wife didn’t hammer home that it was a musical: full stop. I’m taking someone to see it next week so I might come back with something ‘on edit’. Overall, it is a good film it’s just that the second half crushed, just smothered, the ecstatic joy manufactured in the first half.
(On Edit: on a second viewing, I stand by everything but it wasn’t half & half: the perfect segment goes on for about 85 minutes; the weaker part is merely the last half an hour rather than the last hour. And it does play a bit better the second time around: it seems slightly more artistically justified and slightly less of an awards grab/a lack of conviction towards making musicals.).