The 1970s were a famously grand and tumultuous time for American cinema. The “New Hollywood” era as it’s known is when the film industry moved on from the “old Hollywood” style as we now call it and embraced a newer more gritty style. Of course being as American film did still have its roots in those Hollywood classics to some extent the new crop of auteurs weren’t going to completely abandon what came before and much of the New Hollywood era was dedicated to finding new and relevant ways to bring the old styles to the screen. Sure enough the filmmakers of the era were indeed able to find new ways to make gangster films (The Godfather), westerns (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), film noirs (Chinatown), and various other familiar film genres, but there was one style they were never really able to crack: musicals. Of course this wasn’t for lack of trying. One of the most famous, or perhaps infamous, attempts to bring back the musical was Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film New York, New York, which was a huge bomb at the box office and is often seen as something of a blemish on the director’s career but it is very interesting to watch today if nothing else than for what it’s trying (and perhaps failing) to do. Now, some thirty-nine years later a young filmmaker named Damien Chazelle seems to be trying to succeed where Scorsese failed and is making his own neo-musical named after a major city and focusing on a rocky relationship between a female performer and a jazz musician called La La Land and it’s finally coming out after a massive wave of hype and anticipation within the film community.
As you can probably guess from the title, La La Land is set in Los Angeles and it focuses very much on the people who are trying to “make it” in the entertainment industry. Specifically it’s about a couple named Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), who are trying to start careers as an actress and jazz pianist respectively. They actually first meet when Sebastian tries to pass Mia during a traffic jam and she ends up flipping him off but things do improve however when they meet again at a couple of Sebastian’s less glamorous gigs and they end up becoming a pair. Of course it quickly becomes clear that dedicating themselves to each other is not always easy when they’re also trying to dedicate themselves to making their dreams come true.
Let’s go back to New York, New York: why did that movie fail? Well for one thing it was too long, but aside from that I think that movie had two major flaws. Firstly, I think it probably went a little too far into gritty cynicism as 70s films are wont to do. The relationship between the Robert De Niro character and the Liza Minelli character is completely toxic almost from the beginning to the point of being almost abusive. It’s not a movie where you want these crazy kids to get over their problems and get together so much as a movie where you want the woman to get the hell away, and that makes its ending a lot less melancholy than it’s supposed to be. Secondly, New York, New York is kind of more of a musical in theory than it is in practice. The characters don’t really burst into song in that movie, which is an understandable decision, but the story only occasionally finds reasons to have the characters sing and when they do the songs themselves just aren’t very memorable outside of the title track and while some of the scenes are memorably staged a lot of them aren’t. I bring all this up to look at what pitfalls La La Land needs to overcome if it wants to succeed where Scorsese failed.
Let’s start by checking to see how the film operates at a musical. Unlike other screen musicals of recent years like Les Misérables, Into the Woods, Nine, or Sweeney Todd this movie is not a Broadway adaptation. Instead this is an original musical that’s very much in dialogue with the language of Hollywood musicals of the Vincent Minelli variety but to place it in a contemporary context. Characters do burst into song and the movie generally embraces the general magical realism involved in the genre and director Damien Chazelle really brings it as a visual stylist to the point where it sometimes feels like he’s showing off. Take the opening scene, where a bunch of commuters stalled on a freeway overpass get out of their cars and begin a full on six-minute song and dance number set up to look like it was done in a single shot. This isn’t necessarily emblematic of all the musical numbers in the film as few of them actually involve choruses or backup dancers like that and the numbers actually get more intimate and infrequent as the film goes on, but it is emblematic in that Chazelle is really in take no prisoners form and is very interested in capturing these sort of spectacle moments and is often quite effective in doing so.
That having been said, I think the musical numbers here are in many ways more of a triumph of staging than they are of songwriting. The music here was written by Justin Hurwitz, a very young composer who’s mainly only worked on Chazelle’s last movie Whiplash with lyrics written by songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who are probably best known for working on the short-lived NBC series “Smash.” In other words, the music here was not constructed by Broadway masters of the Sondheim or Lin Manuel variety, and it does sort of show. Ignore the songs and Hurwitz music does actually function very well just as a film score (and the instrumentation is more front and center than you usually see from these things) but the songs don’t necessarily have those sort of pop hooks that will really get them caught in your head and while the lyrics are often appropriate they aren’t as meticulously crafted and written as some of the best that Broadway has to offer. It’s not the kind of musical I expect anyone to want to sing along to and there aren’t really any numbers that you’re really going to get stuck in your head. Also, while Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone can both definitely sing and pull off the songs generally, you can tell they’re actors first and you’re not going to get any super standout vocal moments along the line of Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” moment in Les Misérables or Idina Menzel’s “Let it Go” turn in Frozen. Don’t get me wrong, the music here is entirely passable, even quite strong in its aggregate and it all works in the film. I’m just saying that in the grand scheme of things the songs do have their limitations without Chazelle’s staging.
So the movie handles music better than New York, New York, but what about the central relationship? Well, it doesn’t make it’s male protagonist an unlikable monster, so it definitely has an advantage there, but I’m not sure that the central relationship in the film is quite as well cooked as it could have been. In fact the romance gets off to a really questionable start with a series of kind of lame meet-cutes where the Gosling character is seemingly playing hard to get with Emma Stone and being sort of a dick in the process. I didn’t really buy that part of the movie, but when the two finally do get together it works a little better even if certain things do sort of get glossed over. It’s never really explained what these two really see in each other beyond the fact that they are the ones being played by the stars and some fairly standard “spark at first sight” kind of material. This is ultimately a musical and in the history of that genre there are definitely romances that have been explored a lot less poignantly than this one, so I don’t want to be too hard on it, but at times the movie does sort of walk and talk like it’s this deep bittersweet dive into a relationship which it really isn’t when compared to something like Blue Valentine or something.
So, the music and the romance while not perfect still works a lot better than they did in New York, New York, where else do they compare. Well, there is the matter of how the two movies are in dialog with the musicals of old as both are asking a very pertinent question: does this old style have any resonance with modern and seemingly more sophisticated understandings of the world. New York, New York for all its problems did find some interesting if perhaps unsatisfying ways to bridge the gap between old Hollywood artifice and New Hollywood grit and it did so at the expense of a lot of the joy people expect from musicals. There’s very little of that sort of giddy delight people expect from the songs in these movies to be found in Scorsese’s movie and when it did fully embrace the Vincente Minelli-style in the “Happy Endings” number it did so in ways that were bitterly ironic. La La Land by contrast is a bit more nostalgic, or at least nostalgic in a way that’s a bit more conventionally recognizable. Unlike Scorsese’s movie, La La Land starts with its giddiest and most Hollywood-style musical numbers right up front and gets more restrained as it goes, and when it starts pulling the rug out from all this later on it feels a bit more organic.
There are concessions to modernity here. The characters do not have that sickly happy look on their faces as they sing like they do in some of those older movies and the film does more or less position its musical sequences as unreal fantasy moments rather than a diegetic reality within the film, but at the end of the day the film is deeply nostalgic and indebted to the past. This slightly uneasy relation the film has to the past is made into something of a theme in the movie with the Ryan Gosling character’s purist views of jazz. The character is laser focused on a dream of opening and running a jazz nightclub where nothing but “pure” jazz is played. Not the most realistic dream given that jazz is not a terribly profitable genre and that some of his uncompromising ideas he has about running this establishment are kind of crazy, but people have gotta dream right? Anyway this is challenged when he’d given a chance to join a Jazz/urban fusion band fronted by a guy played by John Legend. This is counter to all his traditionalist views, but the Legend character makes a pretty good case for what he’s doing. I expected this to end with the Gosling character realizing that there was something vibrant and original about what this band was doing and that he’d realize that embracing the new wasn’t an insult to the old and that this would be something of a metaphor for what Chazelle was doing to the film musical… but that isn’t really what ends up happening. The character and the movie both more or less end up dismissing that band’s music as being sellout bullshit and the movie moves on from there.
That didn’t really rub me the right way, and I’ve got to say, this movie’s whole “take a moonshot and dare to dream” philosophy never quite spoke to me. Here we’re getting into territory that’s largely a matter of personal taste and outlook, but I just do not relate to people who chase unrealistic dreams and I don’t have a ton of sympathy for starving artists. When I hear people whine about having to work at a coffee shop before they’re “discovered” or talk about traditional jazz as a realistic career goal I can’t really help but roll my eyes a little and it’s hard for me to really sympathize with these kinds of characters who are mostly just suffering the consequences of their own questionable decisions and this might have played a little into why I wasn’t terribly invested in these characters. When I hear movies tell my dreams I can’t help but think “easy for you to say, what about the people who don’t make it and have to live with the consequences the rest of their lives.” La La Land certainly isn’t unaware of these pitfalls and even has a prominent music number that acknowledges the how “foolish” these dreamers are while still strongly celebrating them, and this perhaps makes the message a little less naïve than something like Sing Street which goes so far as to actively demand that it’s character drop out of high school in order to start a band but it still seems a bit like a sentiment that is pretty disconnected to the experience of most people.
There are of course movies that are a little more honest about chasing careers in show business do exist, Inside Llewyn Davis comes to mind, but I suppose there’s a reason that those movies don’t make a lot of money or win many Oscars. And of course it’s hard to talk about this movie without bringing up the “O” word as it’s pretty much been pegged as a surefire Best Picture winner since even before anyone saw the damn thing and because of that it’s kind of hard not to watch it and judge it less on its own merits and more on its worthiness to be given Hollywood’s most prestigious honor. If I’ve sounded like I’m kind of hard on the movie, this is probably a big part of why. The movie’s bigger merits are readily apparent; those musical sequences do look great, it’s impossible to not at least admire it both for its filmmaking, its cinephilia, and its general ambition. Hell, the movie managed to more or less succeed where someone as brilliant as Martin Scorsese in his prime failed, that’s very impressive. The movie in general is very impressive, but there’s a difference between being impressed with a movie and falling in love with one, and I’m not in love with this movie.