Friday, January 6, 2017

La La Land

Writer/director Damien Chazelle's LA LA LAND from this current Oscar season is a well meaning, ambitious attempt at recreating big yesteryear Hollywood movie musicals.  It tries, really tries hard.  But within seconds of its opening, I knew that this movie would be an also-ran, a misfire, despite the considerable talents of its cast and crew.   I really wanted to love this movie.

LA LA LAND begins with gridlock on a freeway, frustrated drivers mouthing the words of one of many forgettable songs by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Hall.  Eventually, they jump on the hoods of their cars, springing across other vehicles, arms skyward.  The back of a truck opens to reveal an entire band.  There's energy and infectiousness, but it somehow doesn't play.  The rhythm is off.  The dancing is, well, amateurish.  The vocals, completely uninspired.  When the scene concluded, people in my audience applauded.   Incredulous to me. 

Then there's the cinematography by Linus Sandgren.  Hugely disappointing.  Yes, there are some vivid uses of primary colors, but it overall looks very drab, like a worn 35mm print run through a projector with a bulb of improper wattage.  Can I blame this on my theater's projectionist? How about the "blur" when the camera does wild 180s? Intentional? I appreciate the efforts to preserve the wide shots (and widescreen) of a film in which Fred Astaire might've graced, but when the subjects come off as pale imitators, maybe unsure of their choreography, well...

That's a mild shot at lead actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who play Sebastian and Mia, two young hopefuls who pay their dues in the City of Angels, he as a piano man in restaurants and she as a barrista on the Warner Brothers lot.  He is a serious jazz musician who loves Coltrane and wants to open his own nightclub.  She endures humiliating auditions while dreaming of being a famous actress, and also a writer.  They meet and it's hardly love at first sight.  They clash verbally, but there are undeniable sparks.  She appreciates his fire, his drive.  They fall in love and sing and dance their way among familiar L.A. landmarks like the Griffith Observatory.  The actors are very appealing, but their song and dance, eh...

Maybe that was the point.  Chazelle wanted to create L.A. as a dreamy yet harsh place with traffic jams and dumpy walk-ups and regular joes amongst them.  But things are at odds here.  The Los Angeles of this film is more of a surrealist's musing than a real place, especially as more and more of its history is bulldozed.  Granted, the city is pretty surreal anyway, but Chazelle creates a fairy tale version to suit its broken-heart-for-every-light storyline.  That would be OK, if its cast had the chops to pull off the steps.  I'm sorry, but if you aim for the glory of MGM Cinemascope extravaganzas, you have to have the right players.

And as dedicated as Chazelle is, I'm not sure he was the right director for LA LA LAND.  All of his ideas are in the ballpark and his script is not to be faulted.  He succeeds far more with his statements on the costs of achieving excellence in your craft (and associated fame as well), the trade-offs.  The notion of love goes beyond merely being side by side forever after.  Some of those ideas were expressed in WHIPLASH, Chazelle's previous.  LA LA LAND is his third movie, and all of them have jazz as central to the plot.  Maybe he should've just done a mid century tale of beaten down sax players and drummers?

Or maybe the writer/director should've (re?)screened Woody Allen's clumsy musical EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, which also had awkward choreography and less than stellar vocals, but somehow worked.  Its big stars struggling with the stage business charming in some odd way. 

But I must mention that Gosling and Stone have some chemistry.  I bought their romance in the later passages, and the climax, a daydream of What Could've Been, actually made me a little misty.  It was unabashedly romantic, and it worked for me.  I wish the entire movie had.

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