I first became acquainted with Damien Chazelle’s work through his short film Whiplash, shown at the London Film Festival in 2013, before it was made into a feature film the following year. I had really enjoyed the energy and ferocity of this single-scene short. Perhaps because, like many other young music students, I had witnessed the harshness and ruthlessness that certain music teachers can show, albeit never quite to the extremes described in the film. Perhaps also because I have always been fascinated by films that analyse the relationships between sadistic teachers and their prey, as featured in The Piano Teacher (2001) by Michael Haneke. I wasn’t sure how the plot would stretch successfully to a full feature film but thanks to strong actors – and in particular J.K. Simmons who plays a terrifying abusive teacher in both the short and long versions – and an extended storyline which puts more emphasis on characters and on the issues affecting excessively ambitious students, the film proved to be hugely compelling and enjoyable.
After the Whiplash sensation, Chazelle has set the bar even higher with La La Land, which is already destined to become a classic, judging from the record 14 Oscar nominations it received a couple of weeks ago. It might not have the depth and originality of Whiplash but hey, it’s a musical, and as such, it’s pleasantly refreshing and safely audacious. Chazelle seems to have struck the right chord with a mix of a film that’s at once brash, garish, weird, experimental, uplifting and bitter sweet. Compared to the usual romantic comedy standards, it’s not too cringe-inducing, sickeningly melodramatic or conformist in its execution, even if it’s never completely unpredictable. Without going over the top, Chazelle pushes some creative boundaries to produce quite a personal film that says a lot about who he is and what he aspires to be.
The impressive all-singing, all-dancing, one-take opening on a highway ramp sets the scene but fortunately Chazelle spares the viewer from musical-overload and chooses to mix a conventional narrative with some louder, more gleeful scenes. The film is a beautiful homage to the age-old myth of Hollywood. This is not exactly new or revolutionary, but La La Land carries enough charm, lightness and brilliance to make the ride worthwhile.
Unlike The Artist (2011) by Michel Hazanavicius or Hail, Caesar! (2016) by the Cohen brothers which went as far as recreating the golden days of Hollywood with all its cardboard decors, smoke and cocktails when executive producers were the kings and actors properly glamorous, La La Land, with its visible technological props and cultural cues sprinkled throughout is well set in today’s Los Angeles. But somehow the haze and fantasy the characters are constantly wrapped in gives the film a timeless texture – as per the conventions of Hollywood musicals. From Hollywood Boulevard to Beverly Hills and Hermosa Beach Pier, the City of Stars is shown it its best light, not dissimilar to the treatment of Barcelona, Rome and Paris by Woody Allen in his postcard movies. The references and nods to movie classics are everywhere to be seen, sometimes subtle, more often explicit, from the rainbow-coloured dancing girls’ scene inspired by Jacques Demy musicals to the trip to Griffith Park Observatory in the footsteps of James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause (1955). Fortunately, the homage to Hollywood classics is never overbearing, and Chazelle manages to instil a real freshness in the film, which is exacerbated by its excellent actors.
Emma Stone plays the aspiring actress with a lot of energy and candour. She is Mia, the All-American girl who left her rural Colorado to make it in L.A. but, as for most contenders, things haven’t quite worked out for her and she has been honing her barista skills rather than rehearsing her lines for big productions. Mia repeatedly bumps into Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a dreamy jazz pianist who is also in a dead end and living out of boxes, and naturally… drum rolls… they fall in love. The couple decide that life’s too short to regret not trying, so both pull their fingers out and start chasing their dreams, with varying degrees of success. While Emma Stone’s huge eyes and constant smile make her a delight to watch, Ryan Gosling’s trademark expressionlessness and nonchalance are tempered by the recourse to singing and dancing, which make him more likable. And, however delightful and uplifting the musical scenes might be, they are only really charming because the actors’ performance isn’t flawless. They are neither professional tap dancers (Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly are probably lamenting from where they are watching), singers or musicians. And maybe because I’d read that Ryan Gosling had learnt the piano to perform himself before I’d seen the film, I was sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for a false note, which thankfully didn’t occur. The jazzy score, composed by Justin Hurwitz, a close friend of Chazelle’s and also responsible for scoring Whiplash and Chazelle’s début film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), has all the energetic string and brass arrangements that you would expect from a Broadway musical, but it lacks a je-ne-sais-quoi, a certain zing that would make it really memorable. To learn to love Sebastian, Mia must first understand the difference between jazz and muzak. Perhaps the same should have applied to the score. And the irony is that Sebastian the jazzman is the one who ends up playing in a band led by John Legend, as terrible an artist in the film as he is in real life.
The best moments in the film are when Chazelle lets loose, leaves the plot on the side and goes for a full-scale musical bonanza. But however uplifting this feel-good film is, it doesn’t adventure itself enough on these creative territories and sticks too closely to the bittersweet archetype.