La La Land.
Directed by Damian Chazelle
Music by Justin Hurwitz
Lyrics / Performance by John Legend
Cinematography by Linus Sandgren
Ryan Gosling as Sebastian
Emma Stone as Mia
John Legend as Keith
Opening day in the UK.
The Times advert, 12th January 2017
I don’t think I’ve seen that many 5 star reviews listed before, let alone the fact hat it has hoovered up the Golden Globes, and has 11 BAFTA nominations.
Funny, when you start to type the credits, you realize how central the two leads are. The next “support” is so far way, way down the list in frequency and impact. There is no “third important character.”
It’s a really unusual film. I find myself agreeing that overall it rates at five stars, yet I can list so many things that are wrong with it.
- Neither of the lead actors is a natural “lead singer.” They’re affecting, moving, interesting, but neither would have been employed as a lead vocalist.
- Is it a musical? It has musical elements in plenty. But it’s weirdly balanced. The big production numbers … the Freeway, the pool party, the room mates in the street all squeeze in early.
- Then later we’re into solo or duo musical elements. The proportion of drama to musical is so high, the “musical” bits come as a surprise.
- Throughout, you think great backing, but why on Earth did they mix the lead vocals so low in the mix? Throughout the musical mix favours the backing instruments over the lead vocal. Fair enough, as both leads, while so affective, are not “lead” singers. But in that big opening Freeway traffic jam sequence, the African-American girl singer is way too light and shaky vocally and way too back in the mix for impact. It could be Poole Cineworld’s system, but if I’d been at home, I would have thought my front central speaker balanced too low. Loud music to left and right. Tiny vocal in the centre. Surely these systems are fixed?Dancing on the Freeway
- There’s dancing. Twos and ensemble. The ensemble dancing never touches the ensemble energy of West Side Story or Grease. This is SO noticeable in the opening Freeway traffic jam dance sequence, which is a great idea, but involves so much clambering around cars that you never get that SNAP! of great ensemble dancing.
- It is too long. 128 minutes is about 20 minutes past the point for the style.
- The great classic musicals had many comedy touches. Comedy is noticeable by its absence here. OK- Sebastian’s annoying car horn is funny. The Toyota Prius joke (no plot spoiler) is funny. I laughed out loud at Sebastian’s surprise in the music rehearsal when the beat machine and synth suddenly roared in. But it’s very little.
- The big songs, breaking out of “reality” into a dance on the Freeway, or the couple floating up into the constellations in a planetarium, are very much in the same vein as in Across The Universe. Trouble is Across The Universe has Lennon-McCartney melodies and none of the songs here are within touching distance of the musical originality or quality of Lennon-McCartney. None of the melodies lasted for me into the cinema lobby.
Let’s take the Hollywood theme. Like Nathanael West’s novel The Day Of The Locust we are in the world of Hollywood wannabe actresses and musicians. The clever plot point is placing Mia (Emily Stone) as a counter assistant in the coffee shop on a movie lot … presumably a tourist accessible movie lot. The sequence where they wander past movie sets is used by both Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Last Tycoon) They milked it. I loved that aspect.
The Messengers: John Legend on guitar, Ryan Gosling left
Director Damian Chazelle demonstrated his love of the intricacies of jazz in Whiplash and extends it here. There was excellent and educational material when Sebastian was “explaining” jazz. Backing music was excellent. The successful electric synth heavy crossover band led by “Keith” (John Legend) has a clever reference. They’re called The Messengers. In strict contrast, The Jazz Messengers were the seminal 1956 acoustic jazz band with Horace Silver on piano, Art Blakey on drums, Donald Byrd on trumpet, Hank Mobley on tenor sax and Doug Watkins on bass. That’s the exact line-up of five that Sebastian envisages for his ideal club jazz band. It’s the same line-up as Cannonball Adderley’s classic quintet too, and like Adderley, the only white guy (Sebastian) is the pianist, just as Joe Zawinul was for Adderley.
Sebastian explains jazz to Mia
We loved the party sequence where poor Sebastian had been dragooned into a rock band, and Mia in the audience requested I Ran last seen as a 1982 hit by A Flock of Seagulls (thus forcing Sebastian to play a cheesy guitar keyboard synth part,) and gyrated sexily to it. They improved it here. Keith (John Legend)’s band (The Messengers), which Sebastian joined for $1000 a week, were also first rate.
Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling: Hollywood is the constant backdrop
Years ago, we went to a talk at a Literary Festival. The speaker was from Mills & Boone romantic novellas. She was dressed in a peachy pink twin set and pearls with carefully arranged hair, and asked “Do I look like a romantic novelist?’ We all nodded, “In fact” she said, “I’m a maths teacher. I worked out the romance template, and made a fortune, and today I’ve dressed for the part.” It was the best talk on writing I have ever been to. Her template was adhered to exactly here. Couple meet. Couple dislike each other. After much abrasive banter, they fall in love. Whoops! Then a major obstacle appears (Sebastian’s tour with a successful band) and they are pulled apart. It is resolved and … and … well, normally a happy ending, but here a delightful alternative retelling of the history comes in (with fabulous fake fuzzy home video footage). Then the twist double twists. No plot spoiler. Loved that twist.
There were many magical moments … not least the initial hand holding in the cinema.
The cinema sequence. About to hold hands,. Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, Emma Stone as Mia
Perhaps best of all were Mia’s several auditions in front of casting directors, the first of which was worth an Award on its own. Ryan Gosling genuinely looked as if he were playing the piano too, a hard thing to pull off. It seems he was. He could play basic piano, but studied hard enough to actually play some of the bits in the film.
So I came out satisfied musically and in terms of plot trajectory. I also felt, in spite of many faults, that it was either five star or very near. Certainly both lead actors and director deserve their awards. Really definitely NOT on musical score, songs or singing. But backing jazz bits were very fine and superbly recorded. Nor on choreography, though they proved that any top American actor can do a very decent dance routine. It’s not unexpected to find out on The Graham Norton Show that she had starred in Cabaret on stage (so singing and dancing) and he had been in a school dance troupe as a kid. It has the mood, the lightness of touch, the romance of the classic Hollywood romantic musical. It also bends genres quite enough to garner critical acclaim.
If you feel this is five star though, as so many reviewers do, do get a DVD or download of Across The Universe. It’s better.