Welcome to this week’s installment of Can’t Care, Moviejawn’s weekly roundup of all the entertainment news we just can’t care about. This week we dissect Damien Chazelle's polarizing awards darling, La La Land.
Francis Friel, The Projectionist
Movie musicals are a funny thing. They can work on every emotional level to leave us laughing, crying, dreaming, gasping for breath, even wishing we could live inside them. To work well, they have to get inside our heads and squirm around in our hearts, pull out all the stops and make us believe in how absolutely real they are while reminding us that we are being performed for, that we are witnessing a grand spectacle. When they do work well, they are like no other art form, set apart even from cinema itself. They are something greater, grander than the sum of their parts. You can tell a lot about a movie by the way a director presents the opening and closing credits, where and when they are placed, the font, size, speed, cut to black, choice of music... likewise, a musical announces itself by how the first song begins and how the final number leaves us, that grace note.
LA LA LAND, the new jawn from Dr. Whiplash himself, is an outright disaster by all of these metrics. Grabbing at random into a bag of movie musical references and cheats, and throwing them around like a kid throwing a tantrum and calling it art, it has no logic, no narrative cohesion, and worst of all, no heart.
It opens on what amounts to a mission statement: a sea of cars on an LA overpass, all identical, random drivers listening to their own music, when suddenly, they start busting out of their cars and breaking into song. This song, by the way, is as weak as they come. A boring, poorly-recorded number sung by a bunch of people who barely register above a whisper, and for the cast of hundreds that appear onscreen, it feels awkwardly small. The dance moves are robotic, lacking any attempt at grace or even winking amateurism (if that's the point?) and just goes on for fucking ever, making what should've been a big rousing opening long-take feel like something that was meant to be cut down and stripped for good moments.
Finally, mercifully, this ends, they all get back in their cars and start honking their horns (ha ha! Life in LA! Uggghhhhh) and we meet our two leads: the most uninteresting human beings on the planet. We get an extended intro sequence featuring Emma Stone's Mia. We learn that she lives in a small but beautiful apartment with a bunch of cool, fun roommates. She works as a barista in a coffee shop on a studio lot, giggles excitedly when an Actual Movie Star comes in for a cup of coffee, doesn't want to go out to party because she's sad that she blew another audition (not her fault! The casting directors were dicks! Someone spilled coffee on her when she was on her way there!), but goes out anyway because her friends love her and want her to have a good time. We get a big song and dance routine as they all get ready to go out, then another when they arrive at a huge pool party. This pool party, by the way, features the second failed attempt and show-off-y MOVIE MUSICAL EXTRAVAGANZA-style excess. There is a shot from inside the pool, looking up at the party-goers, that is so disorienting and unintelligible that surely this could not have been the best take available. I was so astounded that this shot made it into the movie that I was taken out of the movie for the rest of the sequence. But that's okay, because it all leads nowhere. And by nowhere, I mean it leads to her meeting Ryan Gosling's Sebastian, a total fuck-up who thinks he's better than everyone else and has his left hand in his pocket in every goddam shot in the movie. Seriously. Watch this movie again and look for it. Left hand. In pocket. The entire movie. NO WAY was he directed to do that. And if he was, he should've walked off the set and fired his agent. "I can't work with this director" he should've screamed. "He won't let me take my hand out of my pocket."
Ok, so, Sebastian. This prick can't please his boss (JK Simmons, who was probably confused about why Chazelle needed him at all for this role when literally any unknown faceless nobody would've sufficed, but I guess they think they owe each other something), is late paying his bills, and loves jazz for reasons that, as is pointed out to him later, are completely bananas. Yet I'm supposed to care about this guy's problems? We get no indication of his personality beyond that he's dumber than he thinks he is and, for some reason, talks to his sister in some weird New Yawk accent that disappears the minute that scene is over. Maybe they shot that first? Maybe, while Chazelle was listening to the Boogie Nights commentary and thought to himself "oh, he stole that shot from I Am Cuba, I'M gonna do that!" he also remembered the story PTA told about how Burt Reynolds blew everyone's minds by speaking in a thick Irish accent on the first day of the shoot and, again, thought to himself "I'm gonna make Gosling use an accent"... but he must've stopped listening at that point because the point of that story was that Burt Reynolds is a cinematic terrorist and has the worst instincts in Hollywood.
Anyway, I'm way off track and have barely talked about the movie itself. It doesn't work. Plain and simple. It's no longer interesting to make a genre piece out of a collage of all the things you love from that genre. It's been done. To death. Not to sound like a first year screenwriting professor here, but while "steal from the best" may go a long way, "those people you're stealing from weren't stealing from anyone" goes even further. Beyond that, this film uses imagery, themes, shots, and motifs from other, better films without adding a single new or interesting element to the mix. There's nothing here we haven't seen before. Which is a shame, because this is a film that, at every turn, insists that it has something to say.
Movie musicals live and die by their non-musical parts. To keep the audience interested, they need to be just as thrilling and passionate about what they're about, how they're about it, and what they're saying with the material when the screen is occupied with the more mundane, clockwork elements of the story. But casting, as always, is a huge deal. Danny Kaye is one of the most obnoxious and irritating screen actors of the twentieth century, but I get why people liked him. He could do the things that were required of him, in the right order, in the manner called for, and not annoy the living shit out of the people he worked with (presumably). He danced and sang and smiled and audiences seemed to enjoy him. Fred Astaire had grace and the chops to pull off some moves that made people want to keep coming back to see what he'd do next. Judy Garland had a voice that was basically from a textbook on how to make audiences fall in love with you. The list goes on. But the Demon Gosling and Emma Stone are simply not musical stars. And no, that does not make it interesting or cool that they are starring in a musical together. That makes it tragic. Because as much as I love to shit all over the broken record nature of Hollywood, there are certain things that work cinematically and certain things that don't. And if your lead actors are going to sing, they need to know how to fucking sing. But these two spend the entire movie mumbling and whispering and garbling their lyrics to the point that I thought it was all going to turn out to be some kind of joke, like, it was never meant to be a musical at all, but some other meta-commentary on musicals or something. And the worst part: Stone actually gets a chance to let loose and really actually sing and she's not bad! In fact, I felt something approaching a human emotion for the first time during the movie while she did her big audition song for the casting director, a song which, by the way, would've made a perfect opportunity for the director to roll credits over her face and get the hell out gracefully. But no. Instead, that song ends and we are treated to the absolute worst cross-fade of the last year. It was embarrassing. This movie was almost daring itself to keep getting technically worse every ten minutes. And doubled down and dropped my jaw every single time.
These two actors could not have worse chemistry, by the way. It never once made sense to me that these two people would be attracted to each other or want to spend more than five minutes together when they weren't forced to. And the movie seems to know this, because it does everything it can to keep them apart while ramming it down our throats that they need to be together (until it...doesn't, at which point it goes completely off the rails, more on that later). Mia is writing a play. She's pouring her heart into it. She works day and night. She can't go with Sebastian on tour with his terrible boring band because she has to stay in town to rehearse and finally do something she cares about, something that is so important to her, something she's waited her entire life to do, to make something that matters to her, to show the world what she's capable of. And when we finally see the play, it's...over. We don't see her play. We only see that no one came. No one cared. She wasted her time. She was right to doubt herself. She's nobody, one of those people who toils in obscurity, hoping, praying that she's destined for greater things, but who will ultimately, probably, just get promoted and manage that coffee shop she's been working at and keep giggling at Actual Movie Stars when they come in. Or not. She won't care. She'll be jaded. She'll lose her edge, her spark that makes her a true artist.
Oh, but wait. The play is great! A casting director was at the show! She lands an audition where she sings that song that I said should've ended this whole nightmare.
But again, we don't see it. We just kind of take the movie's word for it that it was fantastic. But meanwhile, we see every godforsaken inch of Sebastian's horrible band's trajectory. We are there when his old friend runs into him at the club and invites him to join the band. We're there at his audition. We're there for a photo shoot for a major magazine. We're even treated to an entire live performance where Sebastian has very little to do except smile once in a while and occasionally pull his left hand out of his pocket long enough to play like three notes on a keyboard. Yet we're told this entire endeavor is ultimately pointless and not at all what he wants to be doing with his life. Huh? This dichotomy is the most baffling in the movie. But then again, nothing else about it makes any sense, so who knows.
But I need to talk about the ending before I hand this over to my Moviejawn colleagues. Because it just floored me with how badly drawn and shapelessly dumped onto the screen it was.
So. They break up. Because Sebastian is a dickhole to Mia and basically says that a shitty, bloodless version of him living his dream is more important than a vibrant but short-lived version of hers. Fair enough. The movie established that he's horrible. So that, at least, tracks. But anyway. They break up. And five years later, Mia is famous. Baristas are giggling and fawning over her when she walks into that coffee shop where she used to work. She's happy, married, they've got a cute little kid, and one night, she and her husband decide to hit the town. On their way to an awards ceremony (is that where they were going? I was confused) they decide, eh, LA TRAFFIC IS TERRIBLE so they take the next off-ramp and walk into a little jazz club, that just so happens to now be owned by Sebastian. They sit down, o'l House Key Face at the piano, and he plays their song. The song she heard him play the first night they met. The song that made her leave her old boring life behind to be with him. And he sees her, plays for her, then the movie does the only interesting thing in its power. It starts to pull the rug out. We flash back to that night, their first meeting...oh my god! It was all a fantasy! I was blown away. I thought, wow, maybe all the tonal and narrative inconsistencies, all the hands in pockets, maybe that was all leading somewhere! Chazelle, you devil! You got me!
Ohhhhh, friends. No.
We get this big dreamy re-telling of the entire story, but this time, they fall in love right away, they are perfect for each other, and everything is different! Better!
Nope. That doesn't happen either.
What we actually get is a bizarro version of literally the exact story we've just seen. Mia's life, at every stage, is exactly as it was before, the only differences being that her play was a hit (meaningless, because in the original version she still got the audition out of it, which she does in the fantasy as well) and that Sebastian does literally nothing. He doesn't open a club. He doesn't join a band. But here's the weirdest part of this weird-as-fuck movie: in the fantasy, Mia and Sebastian go out on the town, on their way to an awards ceremony (is that where they were going? I was confused) they decide, eh, LA TRAFFIC IS TERRIBLE so they take the next off-ramp and walk into a little jazz club, that just so happens to be playing their song. The song she heard Sebastian play the first night they met. The song that made her leave her old boring life behind to be with him. But, please, explain this to me: Why is there someone in their fantasy playing this song? We even get a shot of a total rando onstage playing it. Their song! A song very important to them both.
Now, I get this, on a certain level, but it's still wrong. What I imagine happened was this: they figured out this sequence in pre-production. They knew, okay, she's listening to this song, she has this fantasy of what it would've been like to be with Sebastian for all those years, so that song is playing over the fantasy sequence. Eventually, they end up back in the club, and it has to reconcile with her listening to him end the song, so at a certain point, with them together in the fantasy listening to that song, there has to be a third Fantasy Person playing it. But listen: that's the point at which someone should've said, No, that makes no sense whatsoever. And simply cut or drastically altered the arc of that fantasy.
But that's what this movie does from start to finish. It has big ideas, has no idea how to make them work. but plows ahead anyway. What a waste.
Rosalie Kicks!, Old Sport
I'm undecided on La La Land. But let me explain.
Picture it: College, 2004. I learn that a person is actually able to attend school for film and that making movies is an actual career a person can do. I decide to throw in the towel and give up on a dream that I had since the 6th grade. I will no longer be a journalist, instead I will be a visual storyteller.
2006: I complete my very first film evvvvvvverrrrr (If you feel so inclined you can view it here. I have been told it is not that bad for a student film). Guys, this thing was shot on REAL LIVE FILM. Guys I was so very broke after it, but so very proud of miniature film. After the movie was completed, I immediately sold all of my worldly possessions, traded in my clothes for a uniform consisting of polka dots & stripes, and declared that I would move to La La Land and sleep on a folding lounge chair (like this) for five years or until I become the biggest director in town. HA! What a pipe dream. I lasted six months in smog city. Christ. Just thinking about this place gives me the willies: The people. The driving. The scripts I read…blah. So I moved back to the east coast with a paunch aka a survival belly (did I mention the driving) where I could once again feel safe and ride my bike. I realized: You don’t have to live in that rat race to make films…you can live anywhere to make a movie.
Well. I am now 33. I’ve have a couple shorts under my belt. Still haven’t made that feature film yet, but oh I have been talking about it. Talking about it for years; I don’t know how the Best Boy stands living with me. The whole thing plays out perfectly in my mind: a homage to classics, set in a hotel, and oh yea there is going to be this dance number complete with top hats and tails…its gonna be great. I know what you are thinking. What in the actual fuck does this have to do with LA LA LAND?! Wellllll….guys I saw it and I am embarrassed to say but after viewing this I immediately transformed into a: mean girl.
I turned to comfort foods. I couldn’t stop complaining about Chazelle…as if I knew this old sport and we had been pals for years and suddenly he turned on me. I acted as if he made this film directly to offend me. I took his film so personally, as if I was attacked. It should have been me: this should have been my film. I am the one that loves classic films. I am the one that had the idea to pay homage to all those dead hoofers. It took me a while to look in the mirror and realize what a monster I had become. Trashing this film didn’t make me feel any better…the cheese fries did though. In the end, I came around. I realized how actually rad it was to have this film even be made. In a movie world filled with sequels and remakes, he managed to make a sorta kinda musical that looked pretty. (Except for that pool party scene. That scene: NO.)
This guy has been chosen. He was been put on the yellow brick golden Hollywood road. Now, that I have stepped back from it, I still feel it is far from perfect. However there are moments. Moments which absolutely tugged at my heart. Like this:
I don’t love this thing, but I don’t hate it anymore. If anything, it has inspired me. Inspired me to continue to dream. Inspired me to finally step up to the plate, purchase Final Draft and write my god damn hotel screenplay once and for all. It has inspired me to teach Chazelle what a homage to classic films really looks like.
Jaime Davis, The Fixer
I'm going to start off by saying that I adore La La Land. Just...absolutely love it. I'm a lover of old movies, especially musicals, and while Chazelle didn't do much but update the genre in his own style, I feel like overall he did a solid job. But, if I can be TMI-level honest for a few moments, I should admit that my feelings about the film are based more on an emotional response than anything. I got FEELINGS, man. I apologize in advance, cause I'm about to get real emo on your ass.
I first saw La La at TIFF this past September. It was my fourth time at the fest, but the weirdest one because it was the first time I went completely on my own and stayed in a part of the city I had never been to. When I wasn't watching movies or waiting in lines to watch movies, I wandered around the city aimlessly, ghostly, like I wasn't really there, didn't exist. On a personal note, I had recently started seeing someone who I fell crazy in love with. It wasn't an easy relationship - the connection was amazing, but there were a lot of obstacles to being with this person that often left me feeling alone and anxious, not to mention constantly questioning my place. And on the day I saw La La, something happened to this person that first made me realize: there was little long-term hope for us. The timing was off; our time together had an expiration date. So I was feeling low and blue as I wandered into the crowded Scotiabank Theater armed with Malteasers and popcorn to cure my pain. And then the movie started, and it was everything I needed it to be. It was pretty and hopeful and sad and realistic - the ending especially hit me hard. There's a dream sequence where our hero and heroine imagine what life together would have been like had their timing worked out. And I immediately started to cry. Because I knew, on some level, no matter how much I loved this woman in my life, someday I wouldn't know her anymore. And I would move on. But I would always wonder, 'what if?'
And then I saw La La again, last month, when it was released here in Philadelphia. I went with a group of friends (including MJ's Old Sport and Best Boy). I was still seeing the same person, but by this point I knew the end was finally in sight. Those obstacles I mentioned? The bad timing? They had finally taken their toll on what we had. When the end dream sequence started up I lost it, again, because I knew. I was not going to know her anymore. It's been a few weeks now of not knowing her, and I know I sound uber dramatic, but it's been beyond hard. I know it's what's best for me though, just as Mia and Sebastian realize the same when Mia gets offered that once-in-a-lifetime role.
Do I think La La Land is a perfect film? No. Do I think it's a marvel of production technique and directorial style? Not necessarily. Maybe a little. Do I think the script is flaw-free? Certainly not. Are Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling Modern Hoofers and Regular Streisands? Hell no! But I think we live in a different time - during the heyday of musicals, studios trained their actors religiously on dance and vocals, and I mean most of their actors! Sure, your Fred Astaires and Ginger Rogers' and Gene Kellys were true singing and dance masters. But those were the stars of that genre, of that time. Audiences today tend to seek out the best of the best when it comes to musicals, so of course all we end up knowing are the greats. But I bet there were a ton of mediocre musicals released, with less-than singers/dancers that we know little about. I give Stone and Gosling major credit for taking on this film, even if they're no Judy Garland and Danny Kaye. And I appreciate the film for helping me nurse my slowly breaking heart over these past few months. For that, I will always be grateful.