Watching the latest Awards contenders in January, as their hype reaches its tipping point, is always a struggle. Taking the film on its own terms instead of as part of a narrative about #Oscarsowhite or it being someone’s year becomes even harder when the film in question is itself about the dream factory of Hollywood. During my screening of La La Land I had to bat away the creeping, admittedly cynical feeling that this was Damien Chazelle’s vengeance for losing out at the 2014 Oscars to Birdman. That he’d learnt from the success of that film’s lightheartedness, its Hollywood theme, its elaborate technical conceit, and set out to create a film that would be more of a sure fire awards hit, without the classic Sundance narrative that surrounded Whiplash. He concocted a plan for awards success that could not fail; his own La La Land. He plucked Emma Stone, a nominee for Birdman, and shoots her face in extended close ups, where her expressiveness comes most plainly to light. He dazzles Oscar voters with technical wizardry, with a story about hopes and frustrations and never giving up. Awards bait, in other words.
However, Chazelle need not try so hard to establish himself as a Big Deal. He’s already there, an incredibly talented director in awe of cinema history who seems with this film to have the rather sweet intention of bringing back the Hollywood Musical as a crowd pleasing alternative to the dominant franchise system. This conscious adulation of cinema positions Chazelle as a millennial Tarantino or Scorsese. Not just a reference-machine but a competent formalist in his own right. Long tracking shots of the highway (in an obvious but forgivable homage to Godard’s Weekend) introduce a Los Angeles filmed with more detail than I have seen in a long time. One standout shot in particular during the ‘Someone in the Crowd’ number tracks across a party, diving into a swimming pool and spinning above and under the water, faster and faster while the chorus dances, becoming a blur of colour. It is this breathless energy that carries the film through its flimsy seasonal structure, charting the relationship between a couple of dreamers played by Stone and Ryan Gosling, an actress and a Jazz musician who just want to make it.
But La La Land only partly succeeds. Its spectacle is a rare sight in mainstream cinema. So why does it feel so empty? There is a lot to be said about the short cuts the film takes in depicting its central relationship. Gosling and Stone are the only characters the film gives any shading, but still the course of their bond plays second fiddle to the plot momentum. Chazelle hits certain beats with the choices his characters make (moving here or there, putting on a big one person show), not because that’s where their characters are at, but because it is where he needs the plot to get to in order to make his observations on the bittersweet life of successful entertainers. Gosling acquits himself well here, his boyish deadpan persona fits the comedy genre better than it did his macho posturing in the previous phase of his career. You believe in his love of Jazz, even when he’s awkwardly whitesplaining it to John Legend.
Part of the problem comes from the films that Chazelle is explicitly calling out to. The 60s musicals of Jaques Demy are indeed beautiful and it is wonderful that they have received renewed exposure thanks to this film, but the influence here is merely aesthetic. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, for example, is a social realist drama that just happens to have singing. Demy creates irony by juxtaposing the tragedy of his story with the aesthetics of the MGM musical, and in doing so forms an uneasy critique of both the genre and the social situation in France at the time. La La Land lacks any such subversion. It sticks to a simple tale of love, dreams, and a big city.
And in many ways that is enough. But La La Land is juggling this with nostalgia for the era of the MGM Musical, for Minnelli’s The Band Stand and especially An American in Paris; films with extraordinary achievements not just in cinematography but in movement within the frame. Ryan Gosling simply is not Gene Kelly. The dancing in La La Land fails to even approach the level of skill and humour of those earlier films. One dance number between the leads is carried out in a six minute crane shot, but the performances that take place within it are simple and lack ambition. This isn’t a crime in itself, but when the film goes to such lengths to compare itself to this earlier period, both in aesthetics and the very fabric of the film’s story, the dissonance is uncomfortable.
It is clear that Chazelle’s control of camera and editing is stronger than that over his performers. He saves his best sequence for the epilogue, in which he delivers a fantasy sequence that replays events from the course of the movie, imagining them as they might have played out. It is here that he employs theatrical transitions, sets, silhouette, to create the heart-pounding mission statement of the whole film. In a few minutes he makes the entire film come together like Pixar at their most cathartic. The audience lets out invigorated, the legitimately great numbers rolling around their heads for days after. La La Land is a thrill, a great night out at the movies, a great date movie. It dreams that it will last forever, and for some people it just might.