Has there ever been a movie with the universal critical and popular appeal of La La Land, nominated for every available award and pulling in millions at box offices everywhere? Part of the reason must be that it consoles these bleak times with what appears to be traditional innocence, romance, idealism, and hope. And its revival of the Hollywood musical certainly has energy and style. The dancing is particularly good, mixing the casual elegance of Fred and Ginger with bursts of the manic exuberance of West Side Story. The songs are also first-rate pastiches of show tunes, with some snappy couplets worthy of Cole Porter and only occasional clunkers, which may even be deliberate. Part of the appeal of the old lyrics was terrible rhymes (my favourite is from a Sinatra song, ‘But heaven rest us, I’m not asbestos’). Neither of the leads, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, can sing, though this might well be an advantage in the age of authenticity, when it is more affecting to whisper brokenly through a song than to hit and hold high notes. It would never do nowadays to have the stars’ singing dubbed as in West Side Story.
The movie is also a visual treat, adding to the studio routines of the musicals artfully framed cityscapes. And it is irreproachably innocent. The attractive young contemporary LA couple at the heart of the story have no sex beyond a couple of tentative, chaste kisses – and Ryan Gosling, supposedly a bohemian jazz musician, even wears a neat shirt, tie and jacket on dates and looks the kind of daughter’s suitor that any 1950s suburban mom would have adored (I have had a feeling for a while that ties are due to come back in fashion and Ryan may well have kickstarted the process).
La La Land is sexually innocent - but far from innocent in any other way, and it is not in the least romantic, idealistic or hopeful. Under the lovingly-created retro packaging is the hard contemporary message that only success and stardom bring fulfilment and that these are attainable only by the few willing to dump the inconvenient loves of their lives and do whatever is required by those who make reputations, the strategy followed by Emma Stone’s character and endorsed by Gosling’s. Movies are so collaborative and so controlled by financial backers that it is often difficult to ascribe their vision to any individual – but Damien Chazelle is listed as the sole writer of La La Land, as well as its director, and its core message is the same as that of Chazelle’s previous movie, Whiplash, which he also wrote and directed.
In fact Whiplash is a realistic version of the La La Land story. Its hero is a talented and wildly ambitious young jazz drummer attending a top music academy and trying to break into its jazz band. Nothing must get in his way and there is a painful scene where he dumps his girlfriend with a brutally calm explanation of how she will impede his career. Whiplash is grittier than La La in its depiction of the obstacles to stardom – the ferocious competition from equally ambitious wannabes, the constant callous rejections from promoters, the indifference, boredom and contempt of audiences – and it is clearer on the core message that nothing matters but success and that only fanatical dedication will achieve it. Near the end of the movie the tyrannical band leader reveals that he singled out the young drummer not for his talent but his ‘drive’, and this is reinforced visually by many shots of the drummer’s bleeding hands and agonised face. There is no evidence of jazz as a sly, sophisticated music of fun.[*]
Of course in many of the classic love films the romance is brief – indeed the brevity is crucial to the romance by showing only the heady initial phase of infatuation and omitting the long slog of relationship. Examples include Roman Holiday, where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck are separated by the royal duty of Audrey the princess, Brief Encounter, where Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are separated by obligation to their spouses, West Side Story, where Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer are separated by death, and of course Casablanca, referenced all through La La Land with posters and photos of Ingrid Bergman in the background, a discussion of one of its scenes by the lovers and virtual remakes of scenes between Bogart and Bergman, including when she unknowingly walks into his club, making him exclaim through clenched teeth, ‘of all the gin joints in all the world she has to walk into mine’, and the final scene where they are reconciled and Bogart finally unclenches his teeth to say, ‘We’ll always have Paris’.[†] The romance was wonderful and the lovers will always have Paris to sigh over but have to get on with more important things. Perhaps the appeal of La La is that it provides the traditional pleasure of exhilarating infatuation terminated before it gets burdensome but updates this by endorsing a contemporary motive for termination. In Casablanca the lovers are separated by the noble obligation of defeating Hitler but in twenty-first century La La Land by the much less noble obligation of pursuing a career.
[*] It’s significant that the young musician’s hero is revealed to be Buddy Rich, a frenetic showman drummer more notable for flashy technique than the cool laidback rhythms of Art Blakey or Max Roach.
[†] I remember reading somewhere that Bogart’s frequent jaw clenching was an attempt not to show repressed emotion but to control false teeth.