Monday, December 26, 2016

an "occasional musical" and its clueless admirers

Credit: Dale Robinette/Lionsgate ©
 Stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling perform for Damien Chazelle's camera

Damien Chazelle's "La La Land" is an odd film of significant charm and flashes of brilliance. It is being sold, rather bravely, as a musical and I reference its courage because the musical genre hasn't been appreciated, understood or desired, for several decades now, by the moviegoing public or even critics (who one would expect to have open, adventurous minds).

Actually, it should be noted that "La La Land" is a musical occasionally.  Sometimes, it remembers that it's a song-and-dance film and, at other times, it seems to forget.  That's part of its laid-back, unrushed, fizzy charm. And this curious quality - seemingly both deliberate and dreamy - is what makes it uncommon among modern films, musical or otherwise.

Chazelle works with only six songs here - which seems like barely enough to carry a self-promoted "musical" - but he's creative with them, playfully extending two or three into lengthy productions while limiting others with a scratch-pad casualness and brevity. Sometimes, only a few bars are sung.

His film has been embraced almost unanimously by the critics, deservedly so, but for reasons that have little to do with the movie itself.  It's been compared by more than one reviewer to "Singin' in the Rain," which is odd given that the two films have little in common apart from the fact that they both contain song and dance performed against a movietown backdrop.

"Singin' in the Rain," co-directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly and released by MGM in 1952, has become the easy, rather convenient go-to musical for contemporary critics, even though one suspects that these same critics probably would have dismissed it as inconsequential in '52.

Also: "La La Land" can't be realistically compared to any American musical because, well, it isn't really American.  It's French (although spoken and sung in English, of course).  It's inspiration is the work of the late French filmmaker Jacques Demy, its specific template clearly being Demy's 1967 creamy sundae-of-a-musical, "The Young Girls of Rochefort" ("Les demoiselles de Rochefort"), featuring songs by Michel Legrand. Both move to a light, lilting jazz score, and "La La Land" also pays homage to Legrand with orchestrations that are lush with violins, flutes, accordians, concertinas and xzylophones.

The music (even the background mood music) in Chazelle's film swirls, unlike that of any other American movie musical within memory. Justin Hurwitz composed the Legrand-like music for "La La Land" and Ben Pasek and Justin Paul contributed the film's quick, clever conversational lyrics.

The French musical is something of an acquired taste, not always easy to consume and enjoy. "The Young Girls of Rochfort," a rare exception, goes down relatively easy, but I always found Demy's much-admired 1964 film, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" ("Les parapluies de Cherbourg"), a challenge to sit through.  Although "La La Land" follows the contours of its inspirations, it has none of the archness of its French counterparts.

Somehow, Chazelle manages to surmount that problem (although certain moviegoers, especially non-fans of the musical, may still be annoyed). 

His sprawling opening number, "Another Day of Sun," choreographed by Mandy Moore on the Los Angeles I-405 Freeway and performed by an ensemble of 100 singers and dancers, seems gratuitous and unrelated to the film that follows, but it is absolutely crucial to setting its tone:

We're not in Los Angeles anymore, Toto.  We're in Rochfort.

The plot that kicks in is about two show-business careerists who meet cute (well, sort of) on the 405, and the film then seesaws back and forth between the ambitions of the girl, a hopeful actress named Mia (Emma Stone), and those of the boy, a frustrated musician named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), while also fooling around with chronology as it also goes back and forth in time.

To make ends meet, Mia works as a barista in the café on the Warner Bros. backlot, where one the buildings has the word "Parapluies" written on it, a reference of course to "Les parapluies de Cherbourg," whose plot is echoed in Mia and Sebastian's knotty relationship.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling complement each other perfectly, with Stone playing it hyper with raw nerves showing and Gosling shielding his character's insecurities with self-aware cool. And so, given these character dynamics, it makes sense musically that Mia nervously flirts with a song or belts it out, as in her showstopper "Audition" ("The Fools Who Dream"), while Sebastian simply croons, lightly and quietly, flirting with his songs in a different way, as he does with "City of Stars," the reprise of which is sort of a musical doodle. Both songs are sung live; others are lip-synced.

"La La Land" doesn't completely ignore the American film musical, memorably quoting two. Sebastian's scenes performing in various small, dimly-lighted, smokey clubs subtly evoke the moment when Judy Garland sings "The Man That Got Away" in George Cukor's "A Star Is Born" (Warner Bros., 1955), while an elaborate, painterly fantasy sequence late in the movie reimagines what can only be the dream ballet in the Vincente Minnelli-Gene Kelly collaboration, "An American in Paris" (MGM, 1951).


All of the film, but especially the fantasy sequence, has been given a luscious glow by cinematographer Linus Sandgrew. In his New Yorker review, Anthony Lane commented, "It looks so delicious that I genuinely couldn’t decide whether to watch it or lick it." Sandgrew employed the old CinemaScope process for this oaccasion and Los Angeles has never looked more inviting. I feel precisely the same way about the movie itself.

FYI: Catherine Deneuve stars in three of Jacques Demy's musicals.  In addition to the aforementioned  "Les parapluies de Cherbourg" and "Les demoiselles de Rochefort" (which also starred Deneuve's late sister, Françoise Dorléac, and Gene Kelly), there's 1970's "Donkey Skin" ("Peau d'âne").  Demy also directed Yves Montand in 1988's marvelously titled backstage musical, "Three Tickets for the 26th" ("Trois places pour le 26").


Notes in Passing: Given the role that Warner Bros. plays in the film (Nicholas Ray's 1955 "Rebel Without a Cause" is also referenced), it's a bit of a surprise that Warners didn't snap up the film's distribution rights.

Lionsgate is releasing "La La Land."

Also, two - count 'em - two soundtrack albums from "La La Land" have been released - one devoted to the film's song score and one to its background music.  This isn't a first, however. David Byrne's new-style film musical from three decades ago, ”True Stories” (Warner Bros., 1986), also had an album of mood music and another with songs.

The latter, however, was not from the soundtrack. All the songs on it are performed by Byrne and The Talking Heads. The actor-singers in the film included John Goodman and Annie McEnroe. Byrne's film remains new-style even 30 years later.  It's terrific and worth seeking out.  That said,  I'm still waiting for an authentic soundtrack album from it.

Well, one can hope, right?

Finally, a delayed added postscript: I've been remiss. I forgot to mention the wonderful documentary made by Jacques Demy's widow, filmmaker Agnès Varda - "Les demoiselles ont eu 25 ans" ("The Young Girls Turn 25") - which details the remaining cast (including Deneuve) and crew of "The Young Girls of Rochfort" returning to the town of Rochfort to celebrate their movie 25 years later.

20 comments:

Charlotte said...

Fabulous review, Joe. You covered every possible angle and brought up issues that hadn't occurred to me while watching (and enjoying) the film or afterwards. Now, I have to see it again!

Brian Lucas said...

Joe, I loved your comments on Gosling's handling of his songs. A "musical doodle" is a nifty way to put it.

Vienna said...

Still to be released here in Scotland. Looking forward to seeing it, though I'm heavily prejudiced in favour of vintage Hollywood musicals. I mean,is it a musical without Astaire, Kelly , Garland , Ann Miller, Eleanor Powell, the Nicholas Brothers, Busby Berkeley.....
Only kidding. Will try to view it on its own merits.
Thanks for your excellent review which I'll read again after seeing it.
How were the two leads' dancing skills.

David Benson said...

I also agree that UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG leaves me untouched. Good review of LA LA LAND.

Sheila said...

Joe- I believe that another musical is quoted in "La La Land." The dance that Stone and Gosling do in the park overlooking Los Angelese reminded me a great deal of the "Dancing in the Dark" number by Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in "The Band Wagon."

joe baltake said...

Sheila- You're right, but these kind of casual, scratch-pad dances predate "The Band Wagon." Fred and Ginger performed them several times and so did Eleanor Powell with whatever partner.

Sabine said...

I loved the film and I'm just happy that Mandy Moore did not even attempt to trigger Bob Fosse's "happy-hands" choreography, keeping it as original as possible. I've had enough of modern choreographers aping Fosse. Let him rest in peace, please!

Sam L said...

I am SO looking forward to being on the 405 next month! With all of the actual and aspiring entertainers out here and ways to connect on social media, it's not out of the realm of possibility.

joe baltake said...

Vienna- The two leads do very well with the steps they were given to execute. I've no idea if Mandy Moore wanted to keep the dancing low key or if she was accommodating the skills of her players. There are no ligament-straining high kicks here. Stone and Gosling essentially do a relaxing soft show, which works at this particular moment in the film. It an entrancing moment.

Nicolas said...

You’re right. "La La Land" is beautiful, the most elegant film I've seen in ages. Very sophisticated. Lots of short lenses, too.

alissa said...

loved, loved, loved it! I was worried about seeing it because I love movie musicals and the "newer" ones rarely live up to the hype. Totally terrific!

Ellen Shaw said...

I realize that the two films are in no way alike, but "La La Land" reminds me of the Astaire-Hepburn "Funny Face." Perhaps it's the French connection?

Marvin said...

Joe, this is one of your most brilliant reviews. And now I fucking get it. The musical film is one of your "favorite" genres. You know so MUCH about that genre. I don't know anything at all! So, if I knew as much as you do about musicals, I probably would have felt the same way that you did about the film. Really . . .

James L. said...

I am sad for all who resist this film’s witty, elegant play on the musical and its with Old Film/New Film binaries.

Marilyn Halprin said...

Being a bit cynical, just a "bit," I have a feeling that 90% of the people seeing this film, and 85% of the "critics" seeing this film, have NO CLUE exactly why the film is "good" and are merely parroting what they have seen/heard from other people/critics, who themselves were merely parroting what they had seen/heard from others, etc, etc., ad infinitum.

Joe Amodei said...

These days it is a rarity to want to see a movie more than once. La La Land is one of those movies. Enchanting!

Marvin said...

Thanks again for enlightening me. Marvin

Jennifer said...

Joe, I agree with you about David Byrne's "True Story" being a new-style musical. It frustrates me that the film never made its mark and is hardly remembered now and that Byrne never made another film. Sad

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Jennifer. I think "True Stories" is ripe for rediscovery. If anything, it was ahead of its time. Personally, I love it and can't get enough of it. Other new-style musicals that are rarely regarded as musicals include Christopher Guest's "Waiting for Guffman," Paul Simon's "One-Trick Pony" (directed by Robert M. Young) and the Henry Selick-Tim Burton collaboration, "The Nighmare Before Christmas," which has a fabulous Danny Elfman score, a major score.

David Kastner said...

Happy to read that I am not the only lover of Byrne's "True Stories," a decidedly different film musical but a film musical nevertheless.