It’s easy to see why La La Land is by far and away the most commercially successful of this year’s Oscar nominations. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, it’s light, it looks great, and it has two A-list stars heading it up. About much of the film, I genuinely cannot complain. The cinematography is exquisite, with care and thought poured into every single frame. The songs too are genuinely good. You can drown in Emma Stone’s huge glassy eyes and cut yourself on Ryan Gosling’s chin. The two have chemistry. The entire film is a love-letter to the Hollywood musicals of the ‘50s and before, and it’s made by a director who clearly has a love and respect for that style. It’s not ironic pastiche, but loving homage. I walked out of that cinema satisfied.
It’s a week later, and I’ve already forgotten most of what happens in La La Land. I can remember that amazing one-take opening number amidst a traffic jam. I can remember one or two tunes. And I can remember that the story is a fairly basic boy-meets-girl setup. Yet, I cannot for the life of me remember whether I had any emotional reaction to the film. Which, in effect, means I had no emotional reaction to the film. You are meant to give way to La La Land on an emotional level, that is the intention.
The reason Singin’ in the Rain remains such a beloved classic is because it takes audiences on a ride of pure emotional exuberance. It’s made with love and care by everyone involved. But for La La Land, I don’t get the impression that anyone outside of Damien Chazelle was really enthusiastic about it. Sure, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are excellent stars, and they have the charisma to hold a movie together alone, but they’re both also excellent actors beneath that, and neither really pushes themselves here. Not to mention they’re both mediocre singers and dancers. Critics have defended their singing on the grounds that the plot requires them to be average dreamers rather than stars, ignoring the fact that this is Ryan fucking Gosling and Emma fucking Stone we’re talking about here, not Art Garfunkel and Denise Richards.
It’s that romance at the centre of the film where La La Land drops like a brick. There simply isn’t enough in it to sustain interest in the film; both characters are thinly written. Neither Gosling’s Seb or Stone’s Mia go beyond the level of ‘desperate for success and willing to work really hard to get there’. Mia’s acting dreams are the same as any other young Hollywood starlet we’ve seen onscreen over the years, but they don’t have the psychological depth of say, Mulholland Dr., or the prickly, complex relationship with fame we see in Sunset Boulevard. No, you’re right, La La Land doesn’t aim for the mood of those films. But it doesn’t change the fact that her dreams are just…there. Seb too, is similarly flat. He’s a hardcore jazz traditionalist who wants to open a jazz club. He ends up in a successful band, taken along by Keith (John Legend), despite his reservations about its modern sound. That’s about it. They’re both too career driven for us to care about their relationship with each other.
Of course, jazz, or a version of it, was a central subject of Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash. Miles Teller’s determined drummer, JK Simmons’ authoritarian bandleader, and Seb here, are all jazz traditionalists. The difference is that Seb’s relationship with jazz is very superficial, described quickly in just two scenes; one where Seb explains to Mia why he loves jazz, and one where Keith explains why Seb’s version of jazz is dying out. As a result Seb is a flat, simplistic character, built on Gosling’s star charisma rather than Seb’s interior life.
To compare, the writing and characterisation in Whiplash is much more complex, much more forceful. Plenty of people have written on Chazelle’s films thus far accusing them of racism and elitism, especially when it comes to jazz, and they may well have a point, but in regards to Whiplash I think people are mistaken when they take it as a director’s statement on what it takes to be a great artist. The film doesn’t elevate either Teller’s or Simmons’ characters onto a platform, and indeed, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a great film about an utterly fucking terrible drummer (seriously, if I was in a band and some smug prick started a 5-minute drum solo in the middle of a song, I would decapitate him). The central brilliance of Whiplash is that both characters are utterly completely wrong about their methods, and yet so determined, so stubborn in their efforts to attain their ambitions. It’s a film built on contradiction, and that contradiction drives the narrative.
No such thing here. There are no contradictions. There’s are dramatic scenes, some musical scenes, and a romance thrown in. But the drive just isn’t there. When Seb and Mia’s relationship breaks down because both of them are so concerned with their personal careers, I don’t care. When she runs out of a dinner date with a pleasantly bland boyfriend to catch Rebel Without a Cause with Seb, I don’t care. The film doesn’t ask you to care. It asks you to take their relationship and just wait for the music, or the next showstopping moment of choreography or cinematography. La La Land is in effect, little more than a few utterly beautiful sequences hung around a fairly weakly-written romance.
And you know what, those few sequences are worth it. There’s talent in Damien Chazelle. He just needs to find it and focus it.