By Gan Chin Lin (17A01B)
You’ve heard its name, fervently adored by theatre kids prone to bursting into loud Hamilton rap numbers.
You’ve seen the movie poster – lead stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling frozen in confrontational tap-dance, arms thrown back: simultaneously ‘mannequin challenge’ and ‘elaborate crane flight formation’.
Lapped up by viewers hungry for the candied, sugared a-cappella flavour of Glee and Pitch Perfect; swooned (and sobbed) over by those who can’t resist a golden romance – it’s no surprise that La La Land is the new belle of the arts ball. The movie has won countless hearts and no, it’s not just Ryan Gosling.
From its debut at the Cannes Film Festival spring of 2016, the film recently swept the board at the Golden Globes with a record-breaking seven wins of every award it was nominated for – best musical/comedy film, best director, screenplay, score and song, as well as the actor categories. On top of that, it has earned 11 BAFTA nominations and 14 Oscar nominations; a virtual avalanche of accolades for what many hail as “the best film of 2016”.
What is this flourishing screen phenomenon about, you ask? Emma Stone plays Mia, a barista on the Warner Bros. lot and aspiring actress/playwright struggling to land an acting gig; whereas Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a cranky jazz pianist/purist with an endless supply of silk ties, playing dinner music in restaurants whilst dreaming of starting a jazz club called “Chicken on a Stick”. Damien Chazelle brings us through their romance in seasons starting with winter; concurrently, the music numbers and shoot locations detail their own love affair with famous Los Angeles and Hollywood milieu. The characters experience difficulty after difficulty, struggling to juggle their relationship and their individual dreams, ultimately coming to a bittersweet resolution.
An elaborately parodic homage to the song-and-dance numbers of the ‘40s and ‘50s, La La Land is rich with references to classics such as Singing in the Rain and Casablanca: littered with a veritable feast of shots and frames alluding to the darlings of retro musical culture for the golden Hollywood lovers to devour. To top it off, it is shot in CinemaScope, recalling the nostalgic cigar box frame of the 50s and 60s, and generously glazed with old Hollywood retro glamour: a lushly golden cinematographic palette with pastel primary colours, fizzy sorbet skirts, and a plummy royal sunset.
Altogether, it’s no surprise that the movie has chalked up an armada of adoring fans, waxing lyrical about its virtue. However, this writer – at one of the most critical scenes of the movie – felt a disturbing apathy. This was clearly at odds with the damp, sniffling sounds emanating across the darkened cinema. In fact, despite leaving the theatre with a distant impression that what was watched was a decent movie, there was a niggling sense of discomfiture about several bits of the plot, along with the movie’s significance as a whole. La La Land presented a promising premise of movie-musical – but ultimately, both failed to carry it through to the end, on top of saddling it down with thematic and plot contradictions.
Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, a jazz pianist
The wider incongruity manifested in the whole “musical meets reality” concept – a recognisably contemporary idiom of “Follow your heart” and “Chase your dreams” set alongside the romance and glamour of Hollywood. In La La Land, this was served alongside with the message that “Art always requires tragic sacrifice” as we were led through tumultuous audition after audition with Mia, angst and doubt about Seb’s career decisions, and the troubles of their relationship. Whilst I appreciated the attempt to add a flavour of cultured cynicism to the atypical Hollywood conundrum, to me this only served to create a sour dissonance with the Hollywood glamour it was trying to pay homage to. There was never resolution nor reconciliation – despite being a love letter to Hollywood and the magnetic charisma of LA, the film never had a message of its own; it didn’t have anything new or unique to say either, which left me with a case of thematic indigestion over the odd mix of themes.
Even visually, La La Land was riddled with juxtapositions: take the beginning, where an arid impregnable highway jam resolves into a flurry of dancing and singing that opens the first musical number. It is a visual feast: think actors twirling around vehicles in a beautiful display of musical-style choreography whilst singing about the sun, right before we are told that it is in fact winter. Indeed, the beginning of the film was a thing of beauty: the camerawork a saucy bag of visual tricks as it swerved daringly, panned in deep sweeping arcs, and even jumped into pools, on top of a zero-gravity dance sequence in the Griffith Observatory reminiscent of An American in Paris.
However, this detailed cinematography and the tap sequences and singing disappeared, oddly, about 45 minutes into the film: almost as if it got tired, hunched down into a chair, let out a breath and said “You gotta give me a second” – but never gets up. Either that, or someone shot down Damien Chazelle’s drone, which would explain why it was all mid-shots from there on in.
Hand in hand with the visual disjunct, the film failed to carry the medium of musical-drama throughout the length of the film, despite the promising start. By the point where the film dispenses with the musical set pieces and gets down to the relationship nitty-gritty, the movie feels like it goes onto romantic movie autopilot. Seb and Mia go through bland, mopey relationship drama, your stock vanilla love story: two starry-eyed youths trying to make it big in LA but at a cost – and ultimately, spoilers withheld, not even that much of a cost since they both ended up pretty successful.
Neither of the pivotal relationship scenes take the form of a ballad or any musical number, which suggests that the music didn’t drive the plot but was rather a flavour device the narrative was awkwardly arranged around. In fact, their main scene of conflict was a lazy crescendo of weak tension: the kind of fight where someone decides that “These two characters need to have a beef”, thus making them say anything but the two words that could possibly end the fight. It was a tortured conversation not from a place of character, but from a place of trying not to diffuse tension.
And indeed, character was an issue for me: Seb and Mia only represent two ciphers of the very basic ideas of a typical LA person, with no lives outside the arbitrary dreams they are portrayed to have. With the occasional music number and all the convolutions of a stock romance, the film has the illusion of so much going on at once – but by the end, I left with no sense of who the characters were beyond some very basic traits, and not enough attachment to their characters for there to be emotional investment in their struggles. The ending scene – beautifully elaborate, gorgeously shot – seemed auxiliary as a result; it bestowed, almost as a pitying kindness, an elegiac quality that the rest of the film did not echo.
Hollywood romance at its finest
And thus as a whole, La La Land was almost self-conscious to me: painfully aware of the fact that it was a musical, it was cognizantly arthouse in a way that makes it known that it is meant to be superior cinema. It drew a dichotomy between itself and the mainstream by scoffing at entertainment in favor of an idealised “Art”. The film seems to construct an almost martyred vision of what art is. This definition of art was aloof and inaccessible – a little ironic, since the root of the word “art” itself is to “join” or “bring together”.
The film focused heavily on the concept of “authentic art”, making it seem like there was only one, superior route: manifesting through Sebastian, who stringently – almost stubbornly – demarcates “true jazz” in his mission to resuscitate the LA jazz scene (which he views to be in deteriorating shambles). This meant disdaining Keith, the head musician of a jazz band (played by John Legend) who dresses Seb down for being a traditionalist (“Jazz is about revolution!”). This elitist mindset was disturbing, but it got worse: the movie took Keith, a very successful African-American musician, and made him the object of derision for Sebastian to knowingly smirk at in superiority as he profited off being in his band (grousing about being a sellout the whole time). In fact, the whole film features many African Americans in jazz scenes – either playing in the background or nodding along as musical calefare, with absolutely no speaking roles. Ryan Gosling can speak, it seems, for all of them.
This contradicts the history of jazz (which is ironic as the film seemed so insistent on promoting authenticity and legitimacy): the roots of jazz was intimately interwoven with the experience of slavery and subsequent oppression of black Americans – it is a music of protest and revolution, celebrating pride and solidarity. Sadly, in this situation and in many others, jazz is often co-opted by commerce: here, where the opinions of a minority group were spoken for by a white man, when they had the right of say.
Despite it all, La La Land was a pretty good movie. Seeing Ryan Gosling hunker down on a piano stool and ram out an impressive series of glissandos, without any cuts or musical stunt doubles, was an indication of his dedication to the role (a three month jazz piano crash course) and Chazelle’s insistence on pushing his actors to truly perform, similar to Miles Teller playing a drummer in his previous film Whiplash. However, I was more impressed with the mood it was painting and the way the film dared to take the idea of a Hollywood romance and drag it through reality: where things are messy, gritty, raw and don’t go your way. Unfortunately, it really didn’t help that after a while the trappings of a musical fell away, and La La Land lost steam, stumbling into an awkward, romance-story gait. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I recommend it? Yes, just to experience the work that inspired all the current critical acclaim. Did I leave satisfied? Sadly, no.