I was trying hard to think – when was the last time I saw a film that was a) a musical, b) wasn’t based on an already existing stage musical and c) wasn’t animation. I think it must be decades – if ever. La La Land hits our cinema screens with an already massive reputation, winning seven Golden Globes and currently nominated for eleven BAFTAs. People are flocking to it – after all, it offers very different fare from your usual superhero/Star Wars/blockbuster fodder. As at 17th January, it had grossed a worldwide box office of $133.9 million. Its impact is pretty immense.
There used to be an active Facebook group (I think it’s dormant now) based on the premise that “wouldn’t life be great if it was like a musical”. You’d wake up every day and think Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’, if you were looking for the perfect girl or boy in your life you’d ask Matchmaker, Matchmaker, make me a match, when you met for the first time they’d be a Stranger in Paradise, when everything went perfectly you could have danced all night, when you looked for inner strength, you’d Climb Every Mountain, when you gambled you’d hope luck be a lady, in the evening you’d look at that Old Devil Moon… well you get my drift.
In its opening sequence, La La Land converts that fantasy into reality. Hundreds of cars stuck on the freeway, going nowhere. We’ve all been there. We turn off our engines, fiddle with the radios, argue with our families, try to get a few minutes shut-eye. We text our mates, saying “we’re going to be late”. We regret not coming off at the previous exit. We check our watch every 45 seconds. That’s not the way to do it! How fantastic it would be to live in La La Land instead. Leap out of your car, salsa over your bonnet and knock out a show tune in tandem with a hundred other drivers, dancing together as though you’ve rehearsed it for months. That opening number, Another Day of Sun, with its hopes, dreams and aspirations, some genuine, some ironic, is pure American Dream in all its glory. I could feel the smile breaking out over my face as I drank it all in. It just takes seconds of watching something like that to brighten your mood and it really worked for me.
From the broad brush of that opening scene to the minutiae of the rest of the story, the film never quite recaptures that magic, although it tries very hard and still delivers an enjoyable yarn. It’s totally music driven, as opposed to plot driven, and from this perspective is very successful. When Emma Stone’s Mia confesses to Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian that she doesn’t like jazz, I was with her 100%. For the most part, I find jazz immensely tedious. I’ve always hated the way “gifted” jazz musicians tamper with the tune and play around it rather than play it. It’s self-indulgent, show-offish and, at worst, pure w*nk. (Apologies for the language.) Sebastian explains the creativity of the genre and insists she simply hasn’t properly heard it. And by the end of the film – or indeed a few minutes later to be honest – she’s a convert. And, I kid you not, gentle reader – I think I am too. This film has done the impossible. I absolutely adored the music all the way through. Even though there wasn’t a stand out tune (to my ears at any rate) it all washed over me and… OMG… I like jazz…
Mandy Moore’s choreography, however, is a slightly different matter. Although it fitted well against the rhythms and the style of the music, I found it quite dated. So much so, in fact, that I wondered if we had somehow regressed to an earlier era. No – they’re using smartphones. Was the choreography meant to tip an appreciative nod to the days when musical films were all the rage as a kind of in-joke? Or maybe it was meant to reflect the rather non-contemporary interests of the protagonists – going to see a showing of Rebel Without a Cause isn’t particularly 2017 after all. Still – after that really modern dance content in the opening scene, the rest of the choreography felt kind of irrelevant to me – it was just an accompaniment to the words and music rather than a driving force telling its own story.
The next two paragraphs really contain spoilers so skip if you want! In brief: after a few unpleasant first encounters – Sebastian is an arrogant knob after all – he and Mia start to understand each other – her passion for acting and dream of fulfilling that great role, his passion for jazz and dream of opening that sensational club. They fall in love, but their work takes them in different directions – Seb with a group that isn’t his thing but pays the bills, Mia writing and performing a one-woman play that flops. Petty jealousies, misunderstandings and bad priorities cause them to separate, although they still support each other – in their own way. By the end, they’ve both taken their chosen path to reach a success of sorts.
Now here’s a thing. There’s a sequence shortly before the end where a completely different scenario plays itself out. Instead of huffily ignoring Mia in the club where he’s just been fired, he puts his arms around her and gives her a truly heartfelt snog. Her career blossoms, they have a child, and so on. I’ve seen it described as a dream sequence – where Mia, lost in a reverie, imagines what might have happened if only… etc. There may even be a suggestion that the dream would have been more fulfilling than what turned out to be reality. Life is great in the fantasy La La Land, after all. However, it didn’t feel like a dream sequence to me. I interpreted it as an equally real alternative plot sequence, kicking off at that club snog – what J B Priestley would have called a Dangerous Corner, with the rest being what actually happened if only that snog had taken place. Interestingly, in both scenarios, Mia’s career developed into a success. Sebastian, on the other hand, would have taken a more supportive, house-husbandly role. For me that was not so much a dream, more a playing-with-time surprise ending, and I think that gave the film a good kick up the backside in the final reel.
If Mrs Chrisparkle hadn’t been with me, I think I may have fallen a little bit in love with Emma Stone. She has that slightly vulnerable, slightly awkward, definitely cute appearance at times when she really needs a knight in shining armour to whisk her away. Ryan Gosling? Pshaw! I’d have done it for half the money. But seriously… she gives a great performance as Mia, taking us with her as she runs the gamut from A to Z. She has a terrific connection with the camera, which lets us into her heart. I know you won’t believe me, but I hadn’t seen her before. Much has been made of Ryan Gosling’s extraordinary commitment to learning the piano and how to tap dance specifically for the film and that genuinely is an amazing achievement. Presumably he can only play those few tracks that he had to for the film – outside that he probably can’t get past “I am C, Middle C…” I jest, because I’m jealous. They look damn perfect together – which, I guess, is the whole point – and he gives a great performance with a nice undercurrent of arrogance and irritability which gets to the heart of his character. There are other actors in the film, but these main two predominate so much that the others are quite hard to recall. I enjoyed the sequence where Mia’s roomies (played by Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno and Jessica Rothe) boost her confidence and take her to a swell party – I wonder if it reminds anyone else of the Bye Yum Pum Pum scene in The Happiest Millionaire? No? Just me, then.
I’ve read the most glowing reports of this film and I’ve read the most damning. In the words of Dickens’ original draft: “it was the best of movies, it was the worst of movies.” I can’t really agree with either. Apart from that first scene, it never clutched me by the throat and screamed love me, damn you, love me. It didn’t really motivate me enough to love it. It looks beautiful, it sounds great, and the stars turn in excellent performances, but it just lacked that extra oomph that makes a great movie. But I certainly didn’t hate it – neither Mrs C nor I nodded off, which is high praise indeed when it comes to a film, and I was certainly keen to discover how it resolved itself, and indeed enjoy my new-found love for jazz.
“So did you buy into it?” asked Mrs C, somewhat portentously, as we walked home. And I wasn’t sure of my answer. I wondered if I am now too old and cynical to be taken in by the American Dream – which is written all the way through this film like a stick of rock. But I don’t think that’s the case, as I still think A Chorus Line is as good as it gets, and you can’t get much more American Dreamy than that. It’s true that the packed house at the Errol Flynn gave it a muted, polite reception. There were a few occasions when we laughed at something funny, to discover we were the only ones doing so. I think there is a danger with this film that its smoothly seductive sheen might simply and slowly bludgeon your brain to death with its sheer gorgeousness; satiated with its overwhelming sweetness, like eating three sticky toffee puddings at once. I did enjoy it; I wouldn’t necessarily want to see it again for some time; but I’m sure as hell going to listen to that soundtrack again. Take it away, Various Artists!