Once this gorgeous, heartfelt homage to movie musicals settles into the deep feelings of its two lead characters, it started to involve me more.
I admit that movie musicals are not usually among my favorites. I like films with strong stories, and, frankly, musicals rarely emphasize the story. And the musicals with some of the most glorious sequences, like The Band Wagon, have stories that are only so-so. I say this in preface to reviewing the highly acclaimed La La Land because my enthusiasm for the film, which is considerable, rests almost entirely on the strength of its story and the quality of the the lead performances.The musical sequences are hit and miss, and none is particularly memorable. I include even the glorious finale in that assessment, which I’ll explain later.
It’s a marvel that director-writer Damien Chazelle was able to create such a defiantly nostalgic film at a time when audiences no longer support the kind of stylization that musicals depend on. Today’s movie musical hits, like Glee, make the musical scenes part of some reality-based format, like a school competition. But Chazelle wants La La Land to be a love-letter to fantasy itself, and to the professionals of the “dream factory” who work so hard to lie to us about real life.
It was also risky to set his musical “romance” in an America where sexual mores have become unashamedly crude. In fact, I thought that by opening the film with a very modern scene – an LA traffic jam – he was leading us to expect just that. So when Mia (Emma Stone) gives Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) the finger as he drives past her, because of the dirty look he gave her for delaying him, it was a sign we were going to see how a musical adapts to today’s sexual mores. The songs and score, by Justin Hurwitz, skillfully blend elements from the grand MGM classics with jazz and pop, and never seems derivative.
Soon enough, Mia and Sebastian, who calls himself “Seb”, get together (neither seems to remember the other from the traffic jam, but never mind). Mia is an aspiring actress with a day job in a coffee house. Coming home from late-night revelry with her girlfriends, she passes by a club and goes in because the pianist, Seb, was playing something lovely; it was jazz-like, even though she doesn’t like jazz. She wants to tell him, but he brushes by her brusquely; he’d just been fired for playing the very music that intrigued her.
But she spots him again at a pool party where he is playing keyboard in the most hilariously bad 80’s cover band you ever heard. The future lovers start off with vaguely hostile banter, but…well, you know the rest. The film’s next musical number is their outdoor dance duet – some tap, some slow twirling – in the light of dawn.
Soon they are intoxicated with each other. They make more music together, including a dance in the Griffith Observatory where they become air-borne with the ecstasy of love. It was at this point that I thought Chazelle was going against expectations. Instead of acknowledging today’s open and casual sexual mores, he wanted his lovers placed among the constellations in musical comedy heaven, where a tepid kiss was all that we would ever see of real sexual behavior.
I’ve got to digress here to mention the “musical” parts, even though I wasn’t bowled over by the them. The opening traffic jam ballet was worst. It looked like another shallow, busy MTV video, with multi-ethnic drivers in multi-colored jump suits bouncing on the roofs of their cars, and I was afraid that it would define the rest of the film (although the pullback shot of the lined up traffic was spectacular). The best musical sequence was the second, “Someone in the Crowd”, where Mia’s three roommates persuade her to go clubbing with them. It was lilting, fresh and simple. This number, in which four pretty girls in different colored dresses gracefully direct our eyes to delightfully colored patterns on the screen, is the one where the influence of Jacques Demy seems strongest. While Mia and Seb’s subsequent dance duets are diverting, they lack the same effervescence.
But it’s with the story, not the musical numbers, that Chazelle keeps surprising us. Mia moves in with Seb and they behave, at first, like todays sex partners are supposed to. The trouble is, I just didn’t buy it. While the lovers are shown in bed, half undressed, your guess is as good as mine as to what they were doing there. Their erotic chemistry is zero, and I became confused about where the story was going.
We know Emma Stone can play sexy. She showed that in the scene on the roof with Edward Norton in Birdman, but she doesn’t show it here. While it may have been Chazelle’s intention to only suggest sex, but to keep it romantic, and abstract, I didn’t see it that way. I began to see Mia and Seb as something other than romantic lovers, that their relationship was based on a different dynamic altogether. They were just two driven people who were uncertain of themselves, and of their talent, and desperate for each other’s support. The real bond between them is the struggle to achieve their dreams, Mia as a famous actress, and Seb with his own jazz club, where they play the music “pure”. And that, it seems, was enough to convince them that they were in love.
I realize that some viewers won’t interpret it that way. The musical numbers all seemed to promise the arrival of true love between two strangers, going back to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The tepid sex was the first clue that this wouldn’t happen, but after Mia and Seb have their most serious conversation in the film, I was convinced their days as a couple were numbered:
Mia is still struggling, not getting callbacks, but Seb has gotten a steady gig on keyboards in a pop-focused jazz group. Singer John Legend plays the leader, and it’s clear they know how to please the crowd. But when Mia goes to a performance, her expression shows confusion as to why Seb is playing music that he must hate. Later, when she confronts him with this, Seb gets defensive. He asks why she can’t support him in his first steady job, that just getting paid to play music is worth it. Mia just walks out in disbelief.
This scene changed the entire film for me. Its tone was frank and confessional, almost brutal. I could see that Chazelle had no intention of pleasing the audience in any traditional way. No, there would be no “happily ever after” for these two. But, surprisingly, I only became more involved in the story. The musical comedy pastiche of the first half, while sometimes stylish and tuneful, had no real story. It was just a familiar, moderately breezy tale of two star-struck but lonely people. I wasn’t bored, exactly, but there really wasn’t much at stake for either of them, so my emotions were undisturbed.
But the confrontation scene gave the story a genuine narrative substance, and a darker tone. There was a threat to the relationship now, but it was not yet made clear what it was.
After the failure of her one-woman show, Mia returns to her hometown in Boulder. But it happens that an agent loved the show, and calls Seb to get in touch with her. It takes some convincing, since Mia has all but given up show business, but she lets Seb drive her back for an audition. She is asked to “tell a story, anything at all.”
At first hesitant, Mia slowly goes deep into her emotions. Suddenly, Emma Stone, that big-eyed ragamuffin, is transformed before our eyes. In describing the effect on her life of an aunt who had moved to Paris, she summons an unexpected, unforced power that is almost shocking. And it clarifies just how much Mia differs from Seb in her commitment to her art.
She gets the part, goes to Paris, where the film is being shot, and presumably hits it big. The next title says five years later: she’s a success, married to some guy in a suit and has an adorable baby girl. The final sequence, the most original and dazzling of the film, begins in another LA traffic jam, this time with her husband. In it, Chazelle encapsulates his aesthetic of film in a way that also concludes, satisfactorily, with everything we wanted to be shown about the feelings Mia and Seb have for each other, but that also has us leave the theatre smiling. And maybe a little misty-eyed too.
While I love this sequence, it doesn’t need to be thought of as part of a musical. It is elaborately designed to evoke the ballet sequence in An American in Paris, but what little dancing it has is rather perfunctory. Instead, we see Mia’s and Seb’s highly stylized fantasies of the life they have actually lived but with Mia marrying Seb instead of her “real” husband. At the end of the fantasy, Seb and Mia exchange silent glances, and knowing smiles. It is a satisfyingly poignant fade-out.
But once again, I read a double-message in it. The stylization of their shared fantasy only emphasized the artificiality of the entire film; in fact, of all films. I saw that Mia’s and Seb’s imagined life together was no less artificial than the real ones they lived instead. Mia and Seb never “lost” a future together because they never had one to begin with. And, ultimately, we see that the “success” they seem to have achieved is illusory too because. . .well, because they are not Mia and Seb but only two movie actors who are play-acting them for our vicarious pleasure.
Apparently Chazelle couldn’t resist reminding us that what we are seeing is a fantasy, even though it undercuts the poignancy of the moment. But I must applaud him for that. It’s such an elegant way of saying that he is just as star-struck as the rest of us.