Monday, December 26, 2016

Review: LA LA LAND

Funny thing about musicals is that if you put them in a different format no one thinks of them as musicals. Frozen or Aladdin are thought of as animations or kids movies but they are stuffed with songs. When it's live action like Grease or Chicago everyone wants it to be innovative or subversive, never just a musical. Lars von Trier made a near Dogme one with Dancer in the Dark (the genre alone would have disqualified it but the look and dialogue were on the money). Chicago played Broadway for the MTV generation cutting all the fluidity out of the dancing with more edits than the human eye could register. And anyway, apart from a few rogue entries, musicals seemed to have died off after the big 60s bubble, recalled for their kitsch value and then their irony value and then the kitsch of their irony or the other way around. Why do one now?

La La Land doesn't promise much beyond genre and keeps to that lack of promise. Sounds like faint praise but read on. We open (after some cute jokes about technicolor and cinemascope) on a jammed L.A. freeway, closing in on a beautiful young woman in a car who's dubba dubba-ing a tune which turns into a big opening song and dance about the eternal sunshine of Los Angeles. The song itself is generic to the point that it needs nothing memorable in the melody or much or the lyric. It's big and loud and colourful and kinetic. It's an opening number which ends on a genuinely amusing note of bathos and the rom com element's meet cute.

Emma Stone is distracted from the traffic by the lines she will be reading in the audition she is driving to. Ryan Gosling can't get the cassette (yep, cassette) in his dashboard to cue at the right spot but when the traffic starts to move again he baaaaaarmps the horn in Emma's ear, overtaking her with a contemptuous sneer. In 1936 when we saw Fred and then Ginger we started following them from the get go. In 2016 this musical also gives us two movie stars and we do the same for them. We're soon to see some developmental dialogue, visual quotes from earlier eras of the genre and so on and the songs will get more character and narrative based. Bring the two together, prise them apart and then bring them back together stronger than ever. End.

With some variations that's what you get. If you don't like that this won't convert you but the curious cinema goer might well feel rewarded by taking the chance in this case. This is a rom com with the theme of following dreams vs sticking at more realistic drudge jobs. The reason you might care about this has a lot to do with that casting. Apart from an early scene between Sebastian (Gosling) and his sister which can't rise above it's old school dialogue about being a serious artist, the central pair put all their more typical dramatic chops into these roles to warm up what might have legitimately been vessels for song and dance numbers. The dramatic and comedic two-plays work well and both get their moments at breakout performance.

The trouble is that the second act sags without strong numbers as we live through the origins of the conflict and it is here that we might have softened the determination to appear like a legit drama between songs and created something more convincing for confidently joining the rest of the musical. As soon as we accept these young A-listers as musical actors we're happy following them through that. Why have such a lengthy dialogue about conflicting lives when a song would have lifted it into compulsion? We know Gosling and Stone can drama how wonderful to have seen them sing it (as they already, creditably had).

The third act lifts itself ably and when director Chazelle (of the compelling Whiplash) amps up the cinema it feels worth the wait. Here we have Mia (Stone) putting the kitchen sink into her audition number. The final what-if sequence, similarly is masterfully handled as the piece remembers it's a movie and can do what it wants which is best done with depth and the director's own obvious musicality.

The score deserves a plaudit for erring on the side of the jazz at Sebastian's core which even knocks on the door at more orchestrally-appropriate moments. This feels less like a tribute to Michel Legrand's masterful Umbrellas of Cherbourg than an extension of it. And we can't leave without stating that the choreography is not only always welcome when we see it but given as live as it can be without those Chicago split second cuts. Stone and Gosling really dance well and one sequence involving swapping places on a park bench rises above it own cuteness with sheer wow-factor.

While I might not see this again soon, I enjoyed it but would rather see another one with even more confidence and commitment to the genre. Now the twenty-teens homages to Singing in the Rain etc have been played out let's find something else (between this and London Street, perhaps) and forge a way. I liked musicals as a kid. They were played on the ABC on Friday nights before I had a legitimate party life at school. I still like them. This shows they can still work but let's keep going and find out what else they can do.

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