Saturday, December 31, 2016

Movie Musical as Theory: La La Land

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land has won several critics’ prizes and is sure to be an Academy Award contender, which is good news for those of us who love musicals since its success is likely to generate new ones. But I’m afraid I couldn’t get up much enthusiasm for the movie. It’s amiable and well-intentioned, it looks lovely (Linus Sandgren lit it, and the production design is by David Wasco), and God knows you can’t fault the two charming stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. For this L.A.-set romantic tale of Mia, an aspiring actress who goes to auditions when she’s not working as a barista, and Sebastian, an aspiring jazz musician who wants to open his own club, where he can play the music he loves. Chazelle spins off from what must be his favorite musicals: Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York and (in one number) Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris. I adore those movies, too, but unlike them La La Land rarely leaves the ground. Chazelle, who is about to turn thirty-two, has made only two previous movies, and La La Land is an immense improvement over his last, the highly acclaimed Whiplash, which I found eminently phony from start to finish. (I didn’t buy either the college-age drummer hero, played by Miles Teller, who is so dedicated to his art that he doesn’t have time to get laid, or his sadistic teacher, played by Oscar-winning J.K. Simmons, who would have been fired years ago for his relentless abuse of his students. And I found the relationship between these two characters incomprehensible.) But La La Land just isn’t the real thing. It feels like someone’s doctoral dissertation on movie musicals.

You can see much of what’s wrong with the picture in the opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” a dance number set during a freeway traffic jam. The problem isn’t chiefly Mandy Moore’s choreography (even though it’s uninspired); it’s with the conception of the number and the way Chazelle has shot it. Although it’s set against an urban landscape, it feels weirdly insulated; the movement of Angelenos against the setting isn’t organic. It may sound strange to use the word “organic” when you’re talking about movie musicals, the most stylized of all genres, but even soundstage production numbers have to feel as if they’re roaming free inside their carefully crafted artificial world. (Look at “Once a Year Day” in Donen’s The Pajama Game or “Who Will Buy?” in Carol Reed’s Oliver!) And though you can clearly see the irony in the idea of people trapped in traffic extolling the virtues of the L.A. weather, the tone isn’t ironic; I’m not sure what we’re supposed to make of their joy. Are they telling us that it’s so great to be out in the sun day after day that it doesn’t matter that it takes hours to get anywhere? Are they making the best of a bad deal, or transforming a hostile environment into a friendly one, like the subway riders in the “Hello, Hello There” number in the stage musical Bells Are Ringing? The number just sits there on the screen, asking us to love it for its own sake, but it doesn’t convey anything.

Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

In The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which is through-sung and dubbed, Demy and his composer Michel Legrand worked with the notion that the banal reality of the two lovers (Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo), a young woman who works in her mother’s umbrella shop and a car mechanic who dreams of owning his own garage, can be as romantic as an M-G-M musical from the forties or fifties and as affecting (since their relationship falls victim to time and distance) as a first-rate Hollywood romantic melodrama like Casablanca or A Place in the Sun. Demy is starting from the same principle as Thornton Wilder in Our Town: that the everyday can be poetic. There’s no reason why this principle can’t be applied to the dreams and the doomed relationship of an actress and a jazz pianist, whose dreams of becoming successful artists are ordinary enough, especially for Mia, and especially in Hollywood. Stone and Gosling come through for Chazelle as much as any pair of actors could, and they work wonderfully together. Stone, with her wit and gallantry and self-deprecating humor (similar to that of a young Streisand or a young Liza Minnelli, but down-to-earth), is warm and fresh and genuinely touching, and the montage of her auditioning for one dumb TV show after another is winning because she makes Mia’s responses recognizably human. It doesn’t matter that neither she nor Gosling is an accomplished singer or dancer (she’s better than he is), since Moore’s choreography and the pleasant score by Justin Hurwitz (music) and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (lyrics) don’t make demands on them that they can’t fulfill. The movie’s best number is “A Lovely Night,” where Mia and Sebastian connect for the first time as he walks her to her car after a party. (Their first two encounters were abrasive, and this one begins like Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynold’s initial, squabbling encounter in Singin’ in the Rain before it turns promising.) The duet seems to complete the conversation and the pas de deux emerges seamlessly out of their promenading through the streets, and Chazelle accomplishes exactly what he’s after.

But Chazelle relies too much on the two actors to fill in; the script he’s written for them is too thin to go much farther without beginning to feel stretched and contrived. Mia and Sebastian start to date and she moves in with him; he gets a job playing with an old friend (John Legend) in a band that doesn’t perform the kind of music he cares about (though the number we see by them, “Start a Fire,” is very enjoyable), and he’s always on tour, while she writes an autobiographical one-person show that no one goes to – not even Sebastian, who has a recording date on opening night. So their romance falls apart, but since the script barely sketches it in, we don’t feel the escalating tension. It might help if Chazelle did more with the L.A. milieu than merely stylize it – if he provided a few more characters for the hero and heroine to interact with, or did more with the few he’s got. Mia has three roommates at the outset (Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno and Jessica Rothe), but aside from sharing a quartet with her early on and taking her to the party where she gets to know Sebastian, they’re barely in the film at all. J.K. Simmons has less than five minutes’ screen time as Sebastian’s disgruntled boss, who let him go when he strays from the conventional playlist. Rosemarie DeWitt shows up as his sister, urging him to move on with his life, and then she drops out of the picture; when she reappears as a bride, she’s been off screen for so long you have to think twice to remember whom she’s supposed to be playing. In the early scenes Mia has another boy friend (Finn Wittrock), but all we find out about him is that he’s a workaholic who puts her second. I got excited when John Legend came on, and he’s dynamic, but Chazelle has written him as a device rather than a character.

Chazelle doesn’t just want to do something in the vein of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; he wants to incorporate Donen and Minnelli and Scorsese, too. But Demy’s approach, though it’s essence of movie musical, boiled down from everything he saw and loved out of Hollywood from the Astaire-Rogers movies onward, moves in a different direction from his sources. Chazelle hasn’t figured out that you can’t go Demy’s way and also go the way of his influences. (That’s partly what I mean when I say La La Land feels like a dissertation rather than like a movie musical.) The more fanciful numbers, like “Another Day of Sun” and especially the epilogue, which quotes both “Broadway Melody” from Singin’ in the Rain and the ballet at the end of An American in Paris – not exactly my favorite items in those two movies – don’t mesh with the notion of poeticizing the everyday. After the failure of her one-woman show, Mia decides to give up on an acting career and go home to Colorado, but it turns out that a casting director caught its brief run and calls her in to audition for a director who’s looking for a talented unknown for a project. Her audition song, “Here’s to the Ones Who Dream,” is meant to be like one of those numbers in backstage musicals (often musical bios) where a gifted singer breaks through and captivates her audience: “After the Ball” in Show Boat, “I’d Rather Be Blue” in Funny Girl, “Folsom Prison Blues” in Walk the Line. And it’s also an eleven o’clock number like “My Man” in Funny Girl or the title number from Cabaret, but the song isn’t good enough to serve that purpose, and Emma Stone isn’t a diva type so she can’t carry it off. When Mia and Sebastian’s romance hits the rocks, Chazelle wants to take us into New York, New York territory, but the point of that musical is to undercut the 1940s-movie-musical stylization – the studio sets and lighting, as well as Minnelli’s resemblance to her mother, Judy Garland – by placing a realist psychodrama about a disintegrating marriage in juxtaposition to it. It’s the polar opposite of what Demy’s up to in Cherbourg.

La La Land contains some very sweet moments, like the scene where the two protagonists go to see Rebel Without a Cause and he reaches for her hand during the planetarium scene and they kiss for the first time. (Unfortunately Chazelle counters the effect by moving them to the Griffith Park Observatory for an overly tricky number where they float in the air and dance in front of a projection of the stars.) In the final scene, five years have passed, Mia has a successful acting career and a New York-based life but she’s back in L.A. for a movie shoot, and by chance she and her husband (Tom Everett Scott) wander into a jazz club that turns out to be Sebastian’s. Chazelle allows them to imagine what their lives might been like if they’d stayed together; he’s going for the mood of the end of Cherbourg and the end of New York, New York, and evidently some people find it very moving. I wish I were among them, but I think this finale, like most of the movie, blatantly doesn’t work. My choice of a movie musical this year would be John Carney’s Sing Street or Jonathan Demme’s HBO concert film Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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