Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Dancers in the Dark

“La La Land”

La La Land is a ludicrous and a laborious film. It’s the work of Damien Chazelle, who previously gave us the grotesque sadomasochistic psychodrama Whiplash, and plays as ineptly on the subjects of music, musicians, art, and artistry as that earlier film did. Where the two leading figures in Whiplash were each a pile of clichés working tirelessly on performances of mediocre jazz numbers, the two leads in La La Land are empty shapes painted in bright artificial colours and emoting through unexceptional Broadway poperatic ballads. The film is explicitly a tribute to the plastic-coloured musical reveries that sprang up in the 50s and 60s, during the final great blast of energy at the death of the classical Hollywood system; a mixed bag of overt allusions is made to Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face, Top Hat, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and other films. But Chazelle – though he works frightfully hard for it, and though that labour shows on the screen – does not have the sensibility of style and of wonder that made each of the works he obviously loves so memorable.

The trouble starts in the very first shot, which turns out to be a long tracking shot that appears to last for at least five minutes, right through the opening number, “Another Day of Sun”. In it, a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway turns into a song and dance routine. Drivers dressed in monochrome pastel colours jump out of and leap over their cars, mugging chaotically for the restless camera. A show is made of the tracking shot and how well-timed, well-placed, and well-coordinated are each of the dancers, yet the impression given is not of the geometric precision of sequences in classic musicals such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or 42nd Street, but of the strenuous work and rehearsal that went into it. The dancers’ beaming smiles don’t evoke the joy of performance and of artifice, but preen at their technical achievement and conspicuous exertions. The self-satisfied multiculturalism of this opening scene feels contrived and then insulting as it yields to the whites-only love story of the film.

La La Land stars Emma Stone as the aspiring actress Mia and Ryan Gosling as the jazz pianist Sebastian, whose career is in overlong bud. Mia works at the till of a coffee shop and Sebastian plays what he sees only as crass muzak for a local restaurant. They encounter each other three times before their story together is kicked off; the third time is at a pool party where Chazelle, misplacing his snobbery, doesn’t scruple to take a swipe at the legacy of 80s pop and glam rock (does he suppose that no one watching might be capable of enjoying both A-ha and Charlie Parker, as many of us in fact do?). Afterwards, leaving the party, they perform the film’s major dance sequence, but neither Stone nor Gosling is an especially talented singer or dancer, and Chazelle doesn’t coax the necessary bursts of personality and joy in each of them to overcome that deficiency (as Stanley Donen managed with the definite non-singer Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face). Consequently, the number doesn’t rouse or inspire, and the joke at the end with the iPhone ringtone is neither smooth nor jolting, only the floundering snap to end a scene.

Chazelle demonstrates unequivocally, for anyone who wasn’t sure about it when they saw Whiplash, that he has no grasp on visual style at all. He fails woefully at his intention to show off the glow of the city of Los Angeles and, despite the immense effort that went into the sets, costumes, and photography, brings no directorial inspiration and no verve in synergy that sparks these diverse elements to life. Chazelle reportedly showed some of his favourite classic films that he wished to emulate to the cast and crew of La La Land every week, but must have missed himself the vast importance of a director with a bright enough vision and a cogent enough style to pull off the feats he aspires to with that most essential attribute of movie musicals, which, though trite, we can call magic.

One of the more annoying aspects of the film is the continuation of Chazelle’s devotion to a silly idea of musical purity when the topic of discussion turns to jazz. Sebastian poses as a jazz fundamentalist, but the little we see of his practicing is (again, just as in Whiplash) not the exploration of new and daring musical ideas or the development of technique, but the precise replication of a recording. Sebastian is also dreadfully unhappy playing Christmas carols when what he wants to play is his own set list (if only he’d known classic jazz, then he’d know what to do with it), and he views his friend Keith (played by John Legend), the frontman who offers Sebastian a job as keyboard player for his jazz-funk-pop fusion band, as a sellout. In short (once more, as with Miles Teller’s drummer), Sebastian doesn’t recognise any authority or system, and views collaboration as the smothering of his ideals and artistic bloom. If Chazelle feels so deeply about the purity of jazz and the necessity to protect it from contamination, why didn’t he expound on that and put on his own jazz musical instead of this pop pastiche? Did he think it wouldn’t have been accepted by corporate studio executives? It seems unlikely that that would have been the case, given that Rob Marshall got to do just what he wanted with Chicago (which went on to win the Academy Award for best picture) and Bob Fosse did the same with his original jazz movie musical, All That Jazz, which was itself a strong contender at the Oscars. There’s sure to be some number of Hollywood producers that would have accepted the proposal.

Mia, on the other hand, is as empty and flat a character as any  being given to attractive young women in Hollywood today. Besides her unending rotation of fruitless auditions, she has nothing else to talk about, nothing to think about, and no life outside of her career goals. The one thing she does talk about with Sebastian are the standard classic films that she watched with her aunt (she cites Casablanca primarily) and that, for some reason, motivated her to drop out of school and pursue a career as a film actress. When she puts on her one woman show, we aren’t shown the process of her writing it, of collecting or remembering the material, of arranging the logistics of it, of drumming up the finance, or of rehearsing it – just like her romantic development with Sebastian, it’s briefly blown past in a wordless montage. When the performance comes up, we don’t get to see or hear any of it, and aren’t shown the personal and professional stakes she sets up for herself, and so can’t realise any of the deeper emotional implications of the results. When Mia is given the chance to tell a story from her own life – which only arises close to the end of the film – it’s about something she didn’t even witness herself, but a story her aunt told her.

Besides the essential wonder of a movie musical, a major factor missing from Chazelle’s film that characterises the entire classic genre he pays tribute to is the quality of camp, and severe stylisation and artifice in classical movies that, though centred on hetero love stories, allowed for profound queer identification. A classic brought up and thrown about in La La Land is Nicholas Ray’s forceful drama Rebel Without a Cause, famous for the iconic James Dean performance, which, through its queer coding, was totally absorbed by the subculture, which instantly picked up the furtive homoerotic relationship between Dean’s Jim and Saul Mineo’s Plato. That film is burnished with a youthful fury and a trembling eroticised psychology, and to hold La La Land up against it for even a few seconds is to point out glaringly the inadequacy and hollow (straight) straightforwardness of the misdirected contemporary musical. There’s no grace or whimsy to the performances, and no stylised expression of over-the-top emotions that has always made musicals the heightened delectation of queer moviegoers (and that made Liza Minnelli as potent a gay icon as her mother in the absurdist jazz musical Cabaret). The refinement and camp that La La Land lacks is what allowed societies and communities on the margins of mainstream culture carry the legacy of establishment classics without having to subvert them. La La Land isn’t even capable of subversion.

La La Land has been conceived, filmed, and then marketed as though nothing had been done with movie musicals since the 50s – as if A Hard Day’s Night, Saturday Night Fever, and The Long Day Closes hadn’t shown what was possible outside of and beyond the movie musical of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age. Rather than conveying Chazelle’s own ideas about and inventions for the movie musical, and throwing a personal and original gloss over the classical forms of the musicals he hallows, he works hard in the same way Sebastian does to replicate what has already been recorded, relocate it to a contemporary setting, and strain towards a technical kind of perfection (which also eludes him). Its base nostalgia is drearily inept compared to the objects of its affections, as was the case with Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (which, incidentally, also misplaced an infatuation for Singin’ in the Rain).

Compare La La Land to Martin Scorsese’s much greater movie musical update New York, New York (also an original jazz musical), starring Minnelli and Robert De Niro as two young performers in New York City, each working on advancing their career, who happen to fall in love with each other (even La La Land’s conceit is not original). De Niro plays Jimmy Doyle, a brilliant jazz musician with a dangerously volatile temper, which places immense strain on his relationship with Minnelli’s Francine Evans, a singer who performs big band numbers. The film is an entrancing homage to the works of classical Hollywood, and is pervaded by Scorsese’s instantly recognisable and distinctive style; he displays his ardent love for those films with the deliberate classical artifices of the sets, and creates magnificent tension between that setting and the thrillingly modern performances of De Niro and Minnelli. It’s a wonder-filled, beautiful psychodramatic work that distills the emotions in the performances and highlights the complex relationships between the actors, their public personas, their roles, the numbers, and the personal meaning of the work to the director. The fact that these two highly creative and passionate people can’t be together, as Mia and Sebastian ultimately can’t, is woven tightly into the fabric of the film and the performances, and a tender understanding of their work and their lives arises from this tragic realisation.

Perhaps the most irksome praise given to La La Land by pundits is that it reclaims cultural significance for the movie musical (fitting in with Chazelle’s cry of “Make the musicals great again”), expressed most absurdly in Manohla Dargis’s recent piece on the matter in the New York Times. She ridiculously claims that any resistance to La La Land among today’s audiences is due to an inflamed cynicism brought on by latter day events, as if moviegoers watching the musicals of Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen hadn’t lost their illusions to the Great Depression, the Second World War, the paranoias of the Cold War, and the revelations of mid-century genocides. Her wish that the Hollywood system would abandon its current production policy of sequels, reboots, and otherwise formulaic fare and go back to the classical forms she remembers and loves is contradictory; it’s wishing for film-makers to apply even more inflexible and more out-of-touch formulas than they already do. The films of the Golden Age were just as formulaic as today’s films, and it was the auteurs who brought their own unique and intimate ideas and expression to movie tropes who managed to made the few films from that period that we now regard as classics. Chazelle demonstrates reverence for classic musicals by applying their forms like formulas; he throws all the ingredients together as though following a recipe, but doesn’t bake it in the heat of artistic inspiration. At this time, as at all times, we need to look to the contemporary cinematic innovators for advances to the artform – such as Wes Anderson and Terrence Malick – and to those who draw influence from those innovations to sublime ends – such as Martin Scorsese and Barry Jenkins.

Musicals have always been with us, and they have always mattered – even by the asinine measure of box office performance. How quickly have those pundits forgotten the regular flow of Disney musicals through our theatres? In recent years alone, we’ve been offered Moana, The Jungle Book live action remake, Into the Woods, The Muppets and its sequel, Winnie the Pooh, Frozen, Tangled, The Princess and the Frog, Enchanted, Home on the Range, The Jungle Book 2, The Emperor’s New Groove, The Tigger Movie, as well as all the television movies that have kept pre-teens just as interested in musicals as any other group: High School Musical and its sequels, Camp Rock and its sequel, The Cheetah Girls and its sequels, The Hannah Montana Movie and its sequel, et cetera. There are animated musicals for children other than Disney’s: Sing!, Trolls, Alvin and the Chipmunks and its sequels, Rio and its sequel, Happy Feet and its sequel, Corpse Bride, The Road to Eldorado, et cetera. And there are the hosts of miscellaneous, far more contemporarily minded musicals (both original and adapted) that took into account a changing culture and showed a perspective of their place in the context of musical and movie history, which come out year after year: Sing Street, Love and Mercy, The Jersey Boys, Pitch Perfect and its sequel, Straight Outta Compton, Annie, Get On Up, Begin Again, The Sapphires, Once, Rock of Ages, Sparkle, Footloose, Country Strong, Burlesque, Nine (which also directly referenced a classic film adored by critics), Fame, Across the Universe, August Rush, Mamma Mia (for which I remember similar remarks about the rebirth of musicals being made at the Oscars), Hairspray, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny, Chicago (for which similar remarks were made as well), Dancer in the Dark, Moulin Rouge! (which also elicited similar remarks), Love’s Labours Lost, School of Rock and its sequel, and The Phantom of the Opera, to name only a few.

Perhaps it’s because there are so many musicals with us nowadays, and because the current cinema is on the whole so diverse, that we don’t notice the arrival of each new musical on the screen. It’s always been as natural a feature in the cinema as gangster films and melodramas. The cornucopia of varied styles and forms doesn’t seem unusual to us either, as part of an evolving artform that seeks ever to move forwards. La La Land invites those kinds of comments because it draws attention to itself and how it reverts back to old styles that, unless rendered by someone apt for both wonder and invention, are best left to their place in history. The cinema of 2017, as well as every year before it, has items of far greater vitality and spark than the strenuous and uninspiring nostalgia of La La Land.


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