The modern movie musical is a tough nut to crack, for every Evita there’s a Chicago, every Mamma Mia! there’s a Sweeney Todd, for every Les Miserables there’s a Nine. The movie musical is a hot property when award season comes around, and in recent years across the board oscars have been given to varying musicals (Les Miserables, Chicago, Frozen, Tangled and so on) and they’ve also done well at the box office.
But their success is because of two things; they’re animated films, which always do well at the box office, or they’re adaptations of famous stage shows (normally by Andrew Lloyd Webber). However, following the Golden Globe wins for La La Land you’d be forgiven for expecting an old school Gene Kelly-style musical.
It’s not that simple, unfortunately. There’s no denying that Damien Chazelle, writer-director of the frankly brilliant Whiplash, clearly has an affinity for music, telling the story of a drummer through the mangle of a sports movie. In La La Land, Chazelle puts a simple couples drama through an old school musical mangle, but it’s far less effective.
Despite the musical numbers that open the film being genuinely great (Another Day of Sun is a highlight), before long the film starts to forget it’s a musical. While the first act is all singing, all dancing, there’s a lack of singing and dancing in the middle and end sections. It wouldn’t be a problem if the musical aspect wasn’t so pitch perfect and enjoyable. Similarly, the film also falls back on repeating motifs; not even musical ones, just conversations.
The songs are great, they really capture that old style of Hollywood musicals, but when your leading man is a hipster who’s also a little bit of a dick, it’s hard to get involved. It’s not that Ryan Gosling is awful, he’s not, but he’s not really a romantic lead in the mould of Kelly (The Notebook notwithstanding). Gosling fits the more serious and silent or smart-alec types of James Dean; his past work in Drive, Only God Forgives and The Place Beyond the Pines making him better suited to rugged roles.
Emma Stone on the other hand is perfectly cast in her role as an aspiring actress and nails the wide eyed idealism that leading ladies had. It’s no real stretch for her against the drama and comedies she’s already done, and the film really hinges on how appealing she is as a performer.
Unfortunately, the film wastes some really talented supporting roles; namely JK Simmons (he disapproves of Gosling’s music – also not his tempo), as well as the thoroughly talented Callie Hernandez (who saved Blair Witch) and brings charm to this film as well.
While the music in it is great (City of Stars is a great song) and the dance numbers are beautiful, there is an element of wanting a bit more of a feel good musical, and less of a melancholic deliberation of the failures of life, and the opportunities we miss. There is also a problem in that the film spends a lot of time posturing about the fall of jazz music , and how the way it changes being a bad thing, which makes Chazelle sound more and more like a hipster also. After all, jazz is still thriving (as all music is) and the old fashioned way of making movies is still perfectly alive and well. Did a silent film not win Best Picture a few years back? Are traditional dramas not being made? After all, this season alone is seeing many human based drama films.
There’s a nobility in what Chazelle is trying to do here, but there’s also a missed opportunity to do a big, unashamed musical as opposed to one that starts with promise and then falls into just a drama with a guy singing the same song. Still, it’s a good second effort from Mr Chazelle, and the leads do give it their all, so hopefully there’ll be more original movie musicals out there, until then, this will do.