So once again we have survived.

La La Land

LA LA LAND is a straight up musical from Damien Chazelle, writer of the music-themed thriller GRAND PIANO, director of the thrilling music movie WHIPLASH. Instead of heart-pounding tension this time he goes for brazen, shameless romance – romance for the idea of falling in love, and for the city of Los Angeles, its history and the potential it represents for aspiring actors and musicians.

I was a little skeptical when it started. The opening, where Los Angelenos temporarily abandon their gridlocked cars for a long-take song and dance number on the freeway overpass that the bus jumped from in SPEED, has a whiff of Old Navy commercial cuteness, and the story of an actress from a small town struggling to make it in big ol’ Hollywood and she’s not looking for a guy but her friends drag her to a party and just when she least expects it… well, it seems a little too straight up exactly the corny old cliche. But as soon as it’s zeroing in on the specific lives and personalities of the two people about to meet and bicker and flirt and fall in love and chase their dreams together and apart, all of that corniness becomes a strength. These two are too charming and funny for you not to kinda fall in movie-love with them yourself, or at least feel a buzz of vicarious courtship.

Mia (Emma Stone, The New Partridge Family) is a put-upon WB-studio-lot-barista limping through humiliating auditions. The one where she has to pause for interruption during a tearful phone call is a great acting-within-acting scene on the level of that audition in MULHOLLAND DR. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, Young Hercules) is a jazz-legend-worshipping pianist who wants to open a club but can’t pay his bills or keep his shitty gigs. The first two times they see each other are random encounters, repeated throughout the movie: him honking his car horn at her, her hearing his music drifting out of somewhere and floating to him like Toucan Sam.

I think piano is a beautiful instrument. It’s the movement of fingers making little hammers hit strings, causing vibrations that can go from a gentle whisper to a riotous tune and back again. And there’s something inherently lonely about the way it sounds on its own. The hands of a great pianist can bring life to a complex piece carefully composed and charted like a mathematical equation centuries ago, but they can also be loose and improvisational and sing the blues with a voice that you have to hold your breath to hear until it builds and fills the room without amplification. So I was delighted to realize how much of this movie’s emotions would be expressed through this instrument.

The music is composed by Justin Hurwitz (who also did WHIPLASH and Chazelle’s first musical, GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH), lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (TOM & JERRY: BACK TO OZ). The featured pianist Randy Kerber did a similar job for SAVING MR. BANKS and BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (which he was also Michael Douglas’s piano coach for). Hats off to Liz Kinnon (here is a 1998 article about her and a band she was in called Jazzbirds), who was piano teacher and coach to Gosling, because I always wonder how the hell an actor makes it look like he’s really playing piano. While the vocal musical scenes aren’t my preferred style, there is plenty of instrumental jazz that sounds good at least to a casual listener like me, and I like the conversation where he’s talking about his passion for jazz and realizes she’s thinking of smooth jazz.

This is a movie wearing its heart on its sleeve about artists following their dreams. Its questions about what one must compromise to do that make for a more obvious philosophical debate than the one explored in WHIPLASH, but I think Chazelle adds a few subtle shades to it. Sebastian is unerringly encouraging about Mia’s one-woman show, and goes to extreme lengths to prevent her from throwing in the towel. But he also disappoints her when he decides to make pragmatic concessions for his own career. Chazelle is too kind to depict it as a total sellout. It does seem that Sebastian’s stubbornness was holding him back, that this band’s not terrible, and that he’s having fun playing his rock-star black-keyed keyboard in front of big crowds. That’s gotta be more fulfilling than his previous job of playing “Rudolph” in the background while people eat dinner and talk and his boss (J.K. Simmons, JENNIFER’S BODY) glares at him to make sure he doesn’t play anything he likes.

Chazelle uses a couple very effective storytelling and timeline gimmicks, but it’s mostly very simple. I felt his filmmaking had complete control of me in a less painful way than WHIPLASH, but (IMPLIED SPOILER) it’s not all smiles and hugs. It finds a beautiful type of sadness, a heartbroken regret mixed with gratitude for memories of the good old days. An old fashioned “The End” title card recalls the nostalgic Hollywood fantasies that lured them to this life, and at the same time seals the ending as just-right melodrama.

As much as I loved this movie, I have to share a tweet that demolishes it in one sentence:

 

So, for the record, I will say that I do not believe there is some white dude in L.A. that’s gonna save jazz. But there is another dude in L.A., Kamasi Washington, a saxophone player who put out a great 3-disc album called The Epic this year. This is a guy who toured in Snoop Dogg’s band and played on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. The album is pretty retro spiritual jazz kind of stuff, it’s not trying to blend with modern styles. But in interviews he talks about getting his friends growing up to listen to Charles Mingus along with N.W.A. I think his opinion (if not style) is closer to Sebastian’s than the character played by John Legend, who believes they have to modernize their music to attract an audience. Or as Wesley says in MO’ BETTER BLUES, “if you played the shit that they like then the people would come. Simple as that.”

I sympathize with L.A. people who worry that LA LA LAND will inspire and embolden a generation of fake ass wannabe Sebastians wearing two-toned shoes and trying to talk about jazz and shit when they can’t cut it. But, you know, it’s not a fictional character’s fault that a real person can’t live up to them. THE MATRIX is still a great movie even though it led to years of unfortunate trenchcoat usage.

It’s easy to imagine a version of this done a little bit differently that I would hate. And those not really attuned to its particular brand of cutesiness will find it unbearable. But I think the two leads are the crucial ingredients. Since SUPERBAD, Emma Stone has been the master of the romantic lead with a down-to-earth vulnerability that makes her as relatable as crushworthy. The story begins from her point-of-view and never prioritizes the dude’s perspective or goals over hers. And he’s allowed to have an even split of sincere-sweetheart and goofy-fuck-up. I’m not trying to brag or nothing but I honestly haven’t seen THE NOTEBOOK so I don’t know if he’s a straight forward dreamboat hunk in that one, but here he’s not that. He reminds me of his comic persona from THE NICE GUYS. You root for him but also chuckle a little when he gets embarrassed.

During one of the key songs (which I predict will deny Lin Manuel Miranda his E.G.O.T. this year) Stone unironically toasts “to the ones that dream.” It reminds me of the climax of THE MUPPET MOVIE, a moment that often makes some dude tear up, I forget who it was but not me probly, I think it was someone else. THE MUPPET MOVIE has more layers to its “life’s like a movie / write your own ending / keep believing keep pretending / we’ve done just what we’ve set out to do” lyric because it’s not just an individual or a couple chasing their dreams, it’s a large group of misfits who have become a makeshift family and you know as these puppets sing about it that they’re also describing exactly what Jim Henson and his friends truly believed and achieved and it’s absolutely beautiful, one might say, if they were that sort of person who gets choked up by that kind of thing.

So, this is no THE MUPPET MOVIE, but like a Muppet movie it’s warm, sweet, uncynical, funny and clever. It hit me hard enough that I came home and added it under KILL ZONE 2 (so at #2) in a critic’s poll I was voting in. A couple weeks later the feeling is still with me and so far I have not regretted that rash decision. It’s pretty good, you guys.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017 at 11:29 am and is filed under Musical, Reviews, Romance. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “La La Land”

  1. Well that didn’t work at all.

  2. Crushinator Jones

    January 3rd, 2017 at 12:04 pm

    The hand-wringing (not from you, Vern) about Gosling’s jazz affection strikes me as wrong-headed. Yes, there will be some poseurs. If it inspires any interest, the vast majority of it will faddish and gone in a flash. But a few will really get into it, and they will carry the torch for it, and in 20 years they’ll have been the ones who kept it around in pop culture.

    That’s how this kind of thing works.

  3. I was really looking forward to this and was severely disappointed. I’m not going to begrudge anybody from liking it and if it wins awards I won’t be terribly surprised. I just think people are enjoying a thoroughly generic movie with some of the most unmemorable songs I’ve ever seen in a musical. I literally couldn’t tell you how a single song went. I can kind of remember the dancing so there is that. One of the movie reviewers said it well when he said it felt like a musical done by somebody who has never actually seen a musical.

    One thing, though, is that Emma Stone’s character is terribly written. She acts like she is supportive of her boyfriend but, in reality, isn’t. There is absolutely 100% nothing wrong with him going on tour with John Legend. If you want to open up your jazz club and you’re a great musician but little money, why wouldn’t you take a steady gig like that tour where he probably made a bunch a money? It was almost like the director saying to himself “I would never stoop to directing a big budget movie” when so many big budget director’s do that so they can finance their smaller, personal motion picture. Man, forget it, this movie stinks.

  4. I don’t consider that to be evidence of terrible writing. I consider it to be a disagreement that the characters had. I also don’t think Chazelle thinks it was wrong for Sebastian to go on the tour. It just didn’t fit into the idealized version of artistic purity that he put into her head. At the end, being in the band helped him to achieve his dream of having the club, but he may or may not regret the personal sacrifice he made by not going to Paris and losing her.

  5. I see your argument but I don’t buy it as anything but generic writing.

  6. George Sanderson

    January 3rd, 2017 at 9:15 pm

    I’m very much looking forward to this film. I think Gosling is a really interesting actor and he is the only celebrity crush that my wife and I have in common. I really like Emma Stone as well, though go I’m not sure I’ve really enjoyed anything she has done since Easy A, but I’m sure someone will jog my memory about something she did (Turn Up The Beef in Popstar doesn’t count).
    But the thing I’m most interested about is Vern’s description of the film’s use of the piano. My wife is a piano teacher and can play the heck out of the thing and it can evoke emotion in me more than any other single instrument (it’s something to do with the string/percsussion combo).
    Hopefully the Oscar buzz will get it a real ease in HK.

  7. Sternshein – I don’t understand what is meant by that “a musical done by somebody who has never actually seen a musical” quote. Do you have link to the review? I’d be interested if it makes more sense in context. This film seemed to be an obvious homage to classic musicals, with the director adding his own riff. I’m not quite sure I get how you make an homage if you are unfamiliar the source material. It’s like saying JACKIE BROWN was done by somebody who has never actually seen a blaxploitation film. Does not compute.

  8. I also love piano music. It’s why I’m so drawn to Jim Steinman’s work for Meat Loaf and other one off bands. He makes piano even more rock n roll than Elton and Billy! Elton’s great tho too.

    Vern, The Notebook could be a trigger for you, but it’s also got such a profound way of dealing with Alzheimer’s it might give you hope. I fucking love The Notebook.

  9. I have to also call bullshit on the “feels like I musical made by someone who has never seen a musical” snark. I mean that’s just a fucking idiotic piece of criticism. The opening number of the movie slaps you in the face with how gleefully it is embracing a Stanley Donen vibe, the ending of the movie is an inspired variation on Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and all the song & dance numbers in between worked pretty damn well for this particular viewer.

    God damn that stupid quote pisses me off. It’s just vaguely relevant words strung together in a lazy attempt to sound clever. “That door feels like it was built by someone who has never walked into a house.” Fuck off.

  10. Are there any other movies this year that got that much Oscar buzz? Actually I can’t think of any that got some Oscar buzz at all.

  11. George Sanderson

    January 4th, 2017 at 4:45 am

    Manchester By The Sea and Fences seem like they could hit the academy sweet spot. I haven’t seen either so I can’t give my opinion on whether they are deserving. Manchester seems like a tough watch.

  12. If this movie can get the youngsters interested in jazz, them I’m all for it. Even if it is played by a white Canadian heart-throb. I often listen to jazz at work, and all of my 20-something co-workers regard it as nothing but elevator music. Even the old warhorses like Love Supreme/Kind of Blue, have no effect on them, other than to request we listen to Sheer Mag/Beyoncé instead.

  13. Or to put it another way — a few years ago I was tending bar at this hip-hop show where the promoter went out on a limb and booked a jazz trio as the opening act. The trio was led by this probably 22-year-old guitarist who was straight-up phenomenal. Very much in the vein of Grant Green but with some shadings of rock and funk. It would be very hard not to be impressed by this kid. But alas, the second they started playing, the room cleared like a can of tear-gas was cracked open. I heard one guy on his phone saying “Just wait to come down here, because they’re playing some old fuddy-duddy bullshit right now”

  14. I occasionally listen to jazz, usually the classic bebop artists like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, etc. And as a musical genre, it takes a lot more time and effort to get into. Without a clear vocal melody, today’s listeners are lost. And jazz musicians aren’t just serving up a bunch of power chords either, so you have to relearn how to listen to music, or at least I did when I first started to try and get into jazz. My guess is that Jojo’s coworkers aren’t actually reacting to the music, because they can’t properly understand what’s happening, but rather are just responding to associations they’ve developed with regards to jazz.

  15. I made a serious effort to get into jazz, but it eventually defeated me. I don’t dislike the sound of it (and I do love a good bebop drum solo) but it’s rare when any particular jazz song stands out as being appreciably better or worse than any other to me. It’s an abstract thing, with no place for me to get an emotional foothold. Like so many genres that superserious musicians gravitate toward, it seems like way more fun to play than to listen to. I can cherrypick a few songs here and there that to me seem distinct enough to me to feel like actual songs and not just a bunch of musicians being musical, but not enough to make me want to explore the genre further.

    I’m also at a disadvantage because I seem to have an aversion to the sound of jazz saxophone. It’s the sound of whiny, nagging, madness to me. All those buttons and switches make saxophonists think they have to play all the notes all the time. The only Coltrane song I really like is “My Favorite Things,” and it’s 100% for the piano parts.

    I should clarify that I’m talking about instrumental jazz. I like jazz singers a lot. At some point, they have to throw me a bone and utilize some song structure us civilians can understand.

  16. I’ll admit that I usually put on jazz when I don’t want to be distracted by vocals. Jojo, any artist recommendations for a jazz novice?

  17. Oh, I forgot that I actually do like jazz guitar. It’s generally a bit less strident. Wes Montgomery has some stuff that I really dig.

  18. any artist recommendations for a jazz novice

    Sure, like I said above Love Supreme by Coltrane and Kind of Blue by Miles. There’s a reason they’re beloved by those with even the smallest appreciation/tolerance of jazz

    If you’re looking for something a bit more challenging but still with melody, check out Karma by Pharaoh Sanders.

    For meat and potatoes bop, Charlie Parker wrote the book, there’s 10-15 different worthwhile collections, just pick one.

    For guitar: Grant Green – Grant’s First Stand. First rate guitar, with a dope B3 Organ/drum rhythm section.

  19. I appreciate that you used Young Hercules as the credit for Ryan Gosling. I met him on set there, so it pleases me that someone else remembers that show existed.

  20. He will ALWAYS be Young Hercules.

  21. Thanks for the recommendations, Jojo. I’ve listened to a lot of Miles Davis and Contrane and a good handful of Parker, but the rest are completely new to me.

  22. I thought this movie was good, but I am left very confused at all the glowing reviews it’s getting.
    It looked OK, the songs were passable, but otherwise it was basically a normal romantic comedy. I thought it was about the same as 500 Days of Summer in terms of being a nice love story type movie, but I really would not place it anywhere near the top of my list for the year.

  23. I loved this one. I thought it was a clear homage to old Hollywood musicals. Despite the first two numbers being big, overall, the musical numbers were meant to be intimate and I thought they were perfectly lovely. I did like that Emma Stone got to belt out that one song a little bit. It felt like each number was just right in tone and purpose.

    It may not have been breaking new ground in telling a love story, but I didn’t find it generic. I thought it was a step above a lot of movies lately telling those kinds of stories in many ways. Chemistry – I cannot get over how often actors are cast, especially in love stories, who have no chemistry. Acting – I am always much more impressed by nuanced performances over mega. Filmatism – it looked beautiful. It looked like a fantasy, but the emotion and actions of the people felt absolutely real.

    I don’t think Stone’s character was unsupportive of Gosling’s at all. She was concerned he was giving up on his dream. She was working on making her own come true and it hurt her to think he was giving up on his. She just wanted to talk to him about it. If he had said, “You know what, I’m really surprised, but I actually do like playing in this band,” she would’ve been fine. If he had said, “No, it’s not ideal, but it’s better than playing in that 80s band and it’s only temporary,” she would’ve been fine. It was that he wouldn’t talk to her about it and seemed to be lying to himself that upset her. She didn’t care about jazz or his idea of a club. She cared about him. Sure, she did come to appreciate, and maybe love, jazz music and would’ve liked to see a club like he wanted to make, but overall, he was way more important to her.

    *END SPOILERS*

    I normally would’ve been really pissed off that they didn’t end up together. I like happy endings, goddammit! I was surprised at how okay I was with how this ended. I think most sad endings aren’t earned. They’re emotionally manipulative. This one felt very natural and bittersweet. Or maybe I’m just getting more maudlin in my old age. Or would that be less maudlin?

  24. Maggie – I don’t know about you, but for me it was the “THE END” that took away the sting of the non-happy ending. Somehow it made me think “Okay, that’s the right note for an old fashioned love story to end on.”

    One detail I loved that I think I left out of the review (sorry if I’m repeating myself): there’s a phony looking set that you see when they’re on the studio lot that made me think “Oh come on, they don’t make movies like that anymore.” And then they were on that set for the fantasy sequence! So they DO make movies like that still. Well played.

  25. For me, it was that whole last number that made it okay that it ended like it did. When it started unfolding I thought, “What is happening!? Is this a SLIDING DOORS thing? Was the whole movie a fantasy she had when she first saw him playing and now we’re seeing what really happened?” But, of course, it was his fantasy of what he wished he had done and what could’ve been. The way it played out through his music was so lovely that it carried me through the sadness.

  26. Saw this last night – agree with Vern regarding the first 10 minutes – to be honest I didn’t feel it until Seb walks in on his sister (where’d she go?). Really enjoyed that interaction, felt like Seb was a character) Mentioning the car insurance had me waiting for some implications throughout; I think I had that feeling when I left with regards to the whole story – what were the ramifications of the actions and decisions?

    The overwhelming message that they got what they “wanted” but just had to do it without each other. Therefore still a happy ending, right? But it’s sad because they should have been together but “hey, don’t sacrifice your dreams for anyone, ok?”.

    The song about the Aunt who lived in Paris was the highlight – a great one shot; for me, the best part of the film was this sequence, with the story starting out spoken and segueing into song and the killer last word which was half-sung/half-spoken. Hats off to that. Thought that was a brilliant touch.

    The fantasy sequence was, for me, the real La La Land – light MaggieMayPie, I intially raised an eyebrow to the apparent “ole’ switcheroo” – it nearly lost me there – but worked well. Stumbling into the white room with the conceptual art had me choking up for some reason…

    Liked it. Didn’t love it. Had a feeling I’d seen better, but overall enjoyable and worth the time.

  27. This is kind of how I feel about La La Land.

  28. Something to do with content restriction?

  29. Shoot, move to another country already. :)

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