Monday 9 January 2017

The dreamers: "La La Land"

It will depend on what kind of escapism you go in search of, this second week in January. Damien Chazelle's heavily touted musical La La Land might usefully be approached and considered as 2017's The Artist, which is to say a novelty hit that wowed and seduced the first responders on the festival circuit, then rode out the inevitable waves of critical backlash to secure itself a clutch of Best Picture nominations as the year wore itself out. It is also, not coincidentally, a movie about the movies, and the reasons why we might persevere with them in the face of all the world's Paul Blarts: chiefly, the eternal yearning to see handsome fellows and pretty girls fall into stride, and thereby occasion a harmony that might be denied to us in the world beyond the multiplex.

On a comparatively banal level, the film is also Chazelle's immediate follow-up to his 2014 breakthrough Whiplash - and, in several respects, an extension of it, unfurled in a Cinemascope ratio that literally broadens this talented filmmaker's horizons. The progress of struggling jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling) and aspirant actress Mia (Emma Stone) through latter-day L.A. once again frames an idea of music as a force that, in gathering up the emotions of everyday life, comes somehow to be larger than life - a pursuit that might, if we're lucky, eventually validate our earthly struggles, our rehearsal-room blood, sweat and tears, and elevate all our creative endeavours to the stars.

La La Land sporadically does thoughtful, even clever things with its music, transporting us up and down the keyboard just as the narrative whizzes us back and forth in time, reassuring us with the reveal that the naff-awful cover version of "Take On Me" heard at the start of one party scene is, in fact, being played within the scene by a naff-awful covers band. Of Justin Hurwitz's original songs, however, the news is less good. These are passable, in a someone's-written-old-timey-showtunes way, but they are, very audibly, the work of someone working night and day to write old-timey showtunes, rather than, say, connecting specific emotions to specific melodies to create something memorable and fresh.

I spent most of the musical numbers wishing somebody in the wake of Whiplash's success had introduced Chazelle to Adam Schlesinger, the Fountains of Wayne genius who penned the retro-leaning breakout hits of That Thing You Do! and Damsels in Distress. Schlesinger has a gift of making his pastiche sound effortless - like fresh-off-the-piano pop, rather than slavish tribute act. (Chazelle is so close to this it's frustrating: he's savvy enough to cast That Thing's Tom Everett Scott in a key role, leaving him precisely one Kevin Bacon degree away from greatness.) Perhaps there is an innocence the movies can never get back, however much we might long for it: whenever Gosling and Stone break out in flurries of dance, on a side road in the Hills or inside the Griffith Observatory, it's now impossible not to see the punishingly long hours of choreography required for these performers to hit their marks before the cameras. It's meant to be casual; instead, it has the look of a hard shoe shuffle.

The film's pleasures, then, are chiefly non-musical: a certain feeling or mood. Gosling and Stone shared the better scenes in 2011's pretty throwaway Crazy, Stupid, Love., and their fizzy chemistry cuts through some of La La's more ersatz elements. It's irksome they should bond over jazz and movie references, but then here are a couple of kids with too much time (and not enough work) on their hands, hanging out in quiet pockets of a metropolis indifferent to their presence, forging their own connection and rhythms, a conspiracy we feel lucky indeed to be let in on. We sense this relationship is heading somewhere when they lean in to share a first kiss at the cinema - pure movie love - and the film they're meant to be watching (Rebel Without a Cause, in glorious Technicolor) burns up in the projector; they'll set off a smoke alarm in the course of their first argument as a couple.

As 12A-rated evocations of heat go, all this is enjoyable enough, but you might just wish Chazelle had given his leads something more profound to do than fall repeatedly in and out of love. (And even as I write that sentence, a voice in my head is insisting there may be nothing more profound to do than fall in and out of love: Chazelle is counting on this.) On one level, The Artist was about an individual discovering he had a voice, a subtext that had obvious metaphorical applications beyond the movies; if La La Land deigns to float anything so burdensome as a subtext, it concerns outsiders being embraced (or rejected) by the mainstream, which obviously reflects Chazelle's position as an independent spirit being welcomed in from the cold, but simply may not play with anyone who doesn't regard their life as what X Factor contestants refer to as "a journey". For better and worse, this is a film only someone who's succeeded in showbusiness gets to make.

The rest of us are free to take refuge in the look of the thing. For after a decade and a half of greasy, blurry, dashed-off-on-digital doodles, here is the return of Film - a film shot on film, as were Singin' in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort before it. With its candied colour-matching and sundown skies, La La Land is rarely less than incandescent to behold, cinematographer Linus Sandgren working with grading technology that wasn't available to Jacques Demy, let alone Vincente Minnelli. The resulting lush flatness may be the best advertisement for the movies a young writer-director could have produced as 2016 ceded to 2017, and those "Is Cinema Dead?" thinkpieces began to stack up; it will also surely make for a lovely moment on Oscar night, as Ryan and Emma trot out one or other of the year's Best Original Song nominees. Keep in mind, though, that La La Land may only be an advert, gorgeous but ephemeral, selling us nothing more lasting than a pocketful of perishable, non-refundable dreams.

La La Land opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.   

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