They Still Sort Of Make 'Em Like A Bit Like They Used To
Making a bad movie is easy. Hmmm, well, now I think on it that isn't actually true: making a bad movie is still a real achievement. Making a good movie is a hugely impressive accomplishment. Making one great movie (or any other work of art) in your life is something that the overwhelmingly vast majority of people do not do. And as for making more than one great movie back to back...
Which brings us to Damien Chazelle and his new film La La Land, the buzz about which has attained a deafening volume, helped considerably by a historic trawl at the Golden Globes the other night. Chazelle came to prominence with the brilliant Whiplash, one of my favourite films of 2015, a lean and intensely focused drama. When I found out he was following it up with a full-scale reinvention of the classic Hollywood musical, my response was essentially one of dubiety, which if nothing else only goes to show how good my radar is. So, to the question you're no doubt dying to hear the answer to (NB: irony) – is La La Land as wonderful as all the proper critics have been shouting? Well, put it this way – this is a film it's almost impossible not to like (and I'm tempted to say that I tried).
Hmmm. The movie opens with a lavish statement of intent, as the drivers of cars stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam erupt into a full-scale song and dance routine of quite startling ambition and complexity. As a technical achievement it's enormously impressive, and I understand some screenings (not mine) have had audiences spontaneously bursting into applause just for this opening number, but I have to say it didn't really connect with me, being a bit short on the old objective correlative – they are people stuck in traffic. They have no reason to be happily singing and dancing about other than because the structure of the film demands it. (Full disclosure: when the song is reprised at the end of the film, I found myself reacting very positively to it anyway, and it is extremely hummable.)
The next song, another upbeat number about a girly night out, isn't quite a case of more of the same, but it did put me ominously in mind of Mamma Mia! and how I usually feel while watching it: namely, as if I've arrived at a party much later than everyone else and am two or three drinks behind them all. Also, I feared the film-makers had slipped up badly by including familiar classics on the soundtrack (Take On Me and Tainted Love), which the new compositions would struggle to compete with. However, as the plot proceeded I found it all becoming rather more agreeable: it concerns Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Seb (Ryan Gosling), a musician on a somewhat quixotic quest to save jazz music from extinction. After a couple of non-cute non-meets, they finally hit it off. He inspires her to write a play; she inspires him to begin to take his career more seriously. But even in a Hollywood musical set in Los Angeles, is a happy ending a dead cert...?
Whiplash was, of course, a film about jazz; it's fairly clear that Chazelle has a thing for this style of music, for La La Land is a jazz musical. Or, to be more exact, it's a completely original jazz musical, with no basis on a pre-existing show or other property. I suspect many people would have rated the chances of someone catching Bigfoot on the White House lawn as being rather higher than an original jazz musical turning out to be such a critical darling, but it just goes to show – you never can tell.
Not that it's conspicuously jazzy all the way through – the songs that are getting all the attention (City of Stars and Audition) could probably have come out of any first-rate Broadway show. There weren't really as many songs as I was expecting, to be honest, but this isn't really a problem as the script is witty and engaging even when the leads aren't singing. I almost hesitate to say this, but in some ways La La Land sort of resembles a musical as written by Woody Allen (my hesitation is because when Woody Allen actually made a musical it was almost unwatchably bad) – there is some zingy dialogue and, of course, a fascination with how relationships begin and then prosper or end. There are also, obviously, elements drawn from the classic Hollywood musical of yore – a particular influence seems to have been Singin' in the Rain, which was of course another original screen musical. There's a bit near the end of La La Land which appears to me to be explicitly referencing the Broadway Melody segment of the Gene Kelly movie.
In the end, though, this is absolutely a reinvention of the classic musical for the smartphone age, and a film with genuine qualities all of its own. It is almost irresistibly romantic, with all the ambiguities you might associate with that, and evokes better than any other film I can recall that moment when you find yourself on the verge of falling in love, with that sense of excitement and endless, immanent possibilities. It also has a lovely wistful, bittersweet quality that gives it real heft and may explain why many people have responded to it so strongly.
Personally I usually go for musicals which aren't afraid to deal with serious and unexpected topics through the medium of a good old fashioned song and dance routine, and I'm still not sure that La La Land quite qualifies as anything more than an extremely accomplished romantic comedy. Nevertheless, the film seems to have acquired almost unstoppable momentum heading into awards season – it's the kind of film the Academy usually takes to its heart, and I fully expect it to demolish all opposition at the Oscars this year. And I can't really object, for this is an almost irresistibly charming film.