Move over Orson Welles! Hollywood has found its new wunderkind—and his name is Damien Chazelle. Coming off his indie hit, Whiplash – a vastly overrated melodrama featuring a jazz drummer instructor who acts more like a drill sergeant – Chazelle has muted his inner bad boy and set his sights on the top prize: Oscar Gold for Best Picture!
Chazelle sets his La La Land in a virtually unrecognisable present with characters, music and settings that are designed to remind us of the 1950s. Virtually every scene is interchangeable so when the La La cast steps out of their cars on the LA Expressway to sing the peppy opening number, Another Day of Sun, Eisenhower could have easily been sitting in the White House and not the present day occupant.
The opening scene is the moment Chazelle introduces his protagonists, Mia (Emma Stone), a barista on a movie studio lot and aspiring A-list actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a talented jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own club. Stone’s Mia is pretty much your generic aspiring actress playing a character initially done in by a lack of self-confidence; the handsome Gosling is miscast as the rebellious jazz pianist – he’s a beatnik thrust into the anachronistic modern day setting. Chazelle’s unimaginative protagonists remind me of a more sophisticated set of characters from the recent TV series, Smash, also a musical that alludes to the past but is set in the present.
The bulk of the La La Act 2 machinations involves Sebastian joining a modern jazz-fusion band headed by a former high school classmate, Keith, played by John Legend. Because Sebastian is an outright snob, a jazz purist who only likes stuff from the good old days, he ends up in the awkward position of disparaging the kind of music Keith is composing and playing. So Legend’s number, ‘Start a Fire’, a rather nice jazz-pop tune, is supposed to be viewed by Sebastian as something that actually isn’t good at all (but actually is!).
Mia’s story is a bit more straightforward. After being rejected by casting agents who she comes to completely disparage, Sebastian encourages her to take a stab at presenting her one-woman show. In a rather contrived scene, Sebastian simply ‘forgets’ about a photo shoot for his band and misses Mia’s show. When her show is a bust with few attending, Mia simply moves back home to Boulder City, Nevada.
Chazelle is on more solid ground wrapping things up in Act 3. Mia gets another chance when unbeknownst to her, a big casting agent came to see her one-woman show and raved about it. But it’s Sebastian who gets the phone call from the agent’s secretary looking for Mia and dutifully drags Mia to the tryout.
Five years later, Mia is a big star, married with child. Instead of reuniting the once aspiring artists, Chazelle imagines Mia randomly instructing her husband to get off the freeway because of the traffic, and they end up at a jazz club called ‘Seb’s’, owned of course by Sebastian. As Mia watches Sebastian play, she fantasizes what things could have been had they ended up together. But Chazelle brings us right back to reality to remind us that Mia and Sebastian were never meant to be. That’s a nice touch since he could have ended it with a much more saccharine climax.
The choreography here tries much too hard to emulate the glory days of the American film musical. Perhaps An American in Paris is the film La La Land attempts to copy the most. It’s all very derivative and reminds us of early incarnations without creating something distinctively new. The music on the other hand is quite nice. In addition to the aforementioned instrumental, the lovely ‘Planetarium’, Emma Stone’s ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’ might end up as a bonafide hit especially if nominated for the Academy Award.
What La La Land basically lacks are sophisticated lead characters. No there is no My Fair Lady here by a long stretch. Chazelle’s narrative is entertaining enough, featuring charming performances by Stone and Gosling, but perhaps lacks the really original plot twists and turns that one might find in the classic film musicals from yesteryear such as Singin’ In the Rain or the Wizard of Oz. Chazelle’s nostalgia trip lacks the benchmarks of artistic greatness but some catchy tunes–and Hollywood’s general desire for film musicals – might propel this decent but derivative project into the Hollywood canon of the Academy Best Picture.