‘La La Land’ seriously misunderstands music. So why are its songs pretty great? – Los Angeles Times
To prepare for the role of Sebastian â the hardheaded jazz preservationist in Damien Chazelleâs âLa La Land,â which is nominated for a record-tying 14 Oscars at Sundayâs Academy Awards â Ryan Gosling says he spent three months learning to play piano.
âItâs a lot of time alone, and you become quite anti-social,â he told ABCâs âNightlineâ of the experience. âEvery time I tried to have a conversation during that rehearsal period with anybody, it was a bit like Bambi on ice.â
He neednât have taken it quite so seriously.
A lavish movie musical set amid Los Angelesâ young creative class, âLa La Landâ is dimmest in its depiction of how musicians think and behave. Whenever we see a character pick up a horn or sit down behind a piano â or even open his mouth to hold forth on the supremacy of the past â the film bogs down in childish clichés about compromise and authenticity.
But hereâs the curious thing about this polarizing movie that gets so much wrong about the purpose and value of art: When âLa La Landâ uses music in the manner of the classic musicals itâs obviously emulating â not to put us inside a world but to take us out of one â the movie achieves liftoff.
You get a sense early on that âLa La Landâ is going to have problems when it shows us Sebastian debasing himself for a paycheck at a party in the Hollywood Hills. By this point, weâre already meant to understand that heâs a genuine artist, yet here he is forced to play keytar in a cheesy â80s-pop cover band â a humiliation made only worse by the arrival of Mia, a woman heâd like to impress, played by Emma Stone.
Thereâs no mistaking the tone of pity in this scene. But the cover band sounds great blazing through âI Ranâ by A Flock of Seagulls. As a viewer, you identify with miserable Sebastian far less than you do the tipsy, half-dressed starlets cheering from the swimming pool.
Yet âLa La Landâ asks you to distrust your reaction â to accept the movieâs outdated idea that pop isnât worthy of respect.
What is worthy, according to the film? Sebastian, alone in his honorably dingy apartment, plucking out the dreary âCity of Stars,â one of two numbers by composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul nominated at the Oscars for original song. (The other, âAudition (The Fools Who Dream),â is much better â more on that in a minute.)
This screwy value system asserts itself again in a scene where Sebastian, performing with the slick soul-funk band heâs joined at the invitation of his old frenemy Keith (played by John Legend), ignites a crowd with the very tepid âStart a Fireâ â a clear indication of how out of touch Chazelle is with the real-world pop he so eagerly denigrates.
Then there are the countless instances of Sebastian mansplaining the importance of jazz â âpure jazz,â as he puts it, without elaborating â to Mia, whose blank expression could be taken as welcome skepticism if the film allowed the character to express an opinion of her own.
This stuff isnât just insufferable; itâs unrecognizable as an attitude anyone in 2017 might adopt.
âLa La Landâ is hardly the first movie to misunderstand music. Most films about this wonderfully complicated subject have trouble capturing how music works, including Chazelleâs previous project, âWhiplash,â which demonstrates the abuse a young jazz drummer is willing to take from a sadistic teacher without demonstrating why heâs willing to take it.
But few movies as dumb about music as this one are also as alive to its emotional potential.
In scenes where the filmâs characters arenât the ones making noise â where a song simply materializes because thatâs what happens in a musical â âLa La Landâ throbs with sensation, be it the opening sequence set on an L.A. freeway (âAnother Day of Sunâ), a number in which Mia and her girlfriends get ready for a night on the town (âSomeone in the Crowdâ) or the gorgeous dream ballet near the end of the movie (âEpilogueâ) in which Sebastian and Mia float through an imagined version of their life together.
Most effective of all might be âAudition,â a solo for Stone that she performs largely in close-up, her face cycling through nearly every conceivable feeling as the music keeps swelling and receding.
Are these elaborate production numbers helped along by filmmaking razzle-dazzle? Of course. Thereâs also the ample star power of two headliners who canât really sing or dance (but can gaze like nobodyâs business).
Yet with their swooping melodies, lively rhythms and lush Old Hollywood arrangements, Hurwitzâs songs â the best ones, anyway â are doing plenty of the work here. And theyâre doing it in a knowing, hybridized way that undermines Sebastianâs stultifying obsession with purity.
âLa La Landâsâ music director is Marius de Vries, whoâs known for his production on records by such genre-indifferent performers as Madonna and Björk â not to mention his involvement in Baz Luhrmannâs âMoulin Rouge,â that postmodern movie musical with all kinds of smart things to say about how pop music functions in peopleâs lives.
Some have suggested that the sophistication of âSomeone in the Crowdâ and âAuditionâ should lead us to conclude that Sebastianâs laughable position on music isnât necessarily the position of the film.
The director himself tried to make that case recently on NPRâs âFresh Air,â saying, âI definitely donât personally endorse or espouse Ryan Goslingâs characterâs views.â Chazelle added that he conceived of Sebastian as a version of his close-minded younger self, when his âidea of art was very exclusionary.â
But thatâs not terribly convincing. For one thing, âWhiplashâ upholds the same moral absolutism as âLa La Landâ in its portrayal of a kid who looks at music as a fortress to be defended.
How many more movies about unsmiling jazz musicians can we expect from Chazelle before he cops to sympathizing with their grim determination?
But consider too the vision of artistic fulfillment that âLa La Landâ ultimately provides, after that beautiful dream ballet ends and weâre dropped back into a years-hence reality, where Sebastian is behind a piano at the nightclub heâs always wanted to open.
The camera starts tight on the keys, then pulls back and reveals our hero, still somber but finally playing just what he wants â a success not because heâs happy but because he stuck to his guns.