‘La La Land’ or — What If Michael Bay Had Directed ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’.
‘La La Land’ is a film that is utterly at odds with its environment because, considering how everyone in this movie spends so much of their time in their car, it is amazing how completely pedestrian this film is.
So I’d had a few friends telling me I should watch ‘La La Land’ for a while now as it takes its inspiration from one of my favourite movies, ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’, I film I pretty much have to watch alone as it has me weeping like a baby every single bloody time. It is one of the most beautiful films ever made especially in terms of its visuals and, oh, that gorgeous music.
But that was also part of my reticence regarding ‘La La Land’. I didn’t want to watch a movie and constantly be comparing it to one of the greatest musicals ever made. I wanted to accept it on its own terms. Oddly enough, despite the film itself flagging it up almost constantly, ‘La La Land’ has almost nothing, genuinely, in common with ‘Cherbourg’. Apart from a few visual references, and lifting the entire ending, there is practically none of ‘Cherbourg’s DNA at work here. Any similarities between the two are purely superficial and cosmetic. If there was a paternity case for this film then ‘Cherbourg’ would not be declared the father. The Transformers movies, however, might.
Seriously, watch that opening sequence on the freeway with the sound off — no actually, fuck it, even with the sound on — and tell me it doesn’t look like something out of a Michael Bay Transformers movie way more than anything Jacques Demy ever directed. It would be less jarring and incongruous if Optimus Prime popped up in this sequence rather than Catherine Deneuve. And with its shots of L.A. at sunset, endless freeways and driving to the Griffith Observatory at dusk this film plays out less like a Hollywood musical and more like an extraordinarily dull side quest in GTA V. It might also account for why I kept wanting to see Ryan Gosling’s character get shot in the head.
So anyway, I thought I was safe. This was simply a new Hollywood musical only vaguely in the vein of Demy’s classic. But then the nods to ‘Cherbourg’ start getting more explicit and that’s also when, for me, the movie went from boring to actively annoying. It was a huge problem with this movie for me: the constant tipping of the hat to ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’. If it didn’t constantly do this it would be easier to accept the film on its own terms, but the fact it keeps doing so, and so explicitly, means the film suffers, heavily, in comparison, a comparison this movie actively invites and even demands. It’s like starting your movie off with the word “Rosebud” and then wondering why people point out your film is “no Citizen Kane”. And the end is a straight copy of ‘Cherbourg’s but has none of the emotional impact, none of the heart-breaking tragedy as Stone and Gosling get, with the exception of each other (and did they ever want each other in the first place?), everything they ever wanted. My heart bled for these poor bastards.
But what really struck me about ‘La La Land’, what really took me by surprise, weren’t the annoying aspects I was expecting (for example, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stones characters are shallow and irritating but I wasn’t particularly irked by them in the way I was dreading). No, what struck me most about the film was just how mind-numbingly dull it is, just how boring, how little I didn’t give a damn about anybody in this film. Will they get together? Who cares? And nothing is at stake here. Seriously, what are the emotional stakes? What do either of these characters have to lose?
Yet the most tedious aspect of this film is, by far, the music. I don’t think I can recall another musical that has a soundtrack this forgettable, this bland and monotonous than ‘La La Land’s. There is an almost complete absence of a clearly identifiable melody. Lyrics (and, hence, story and meaning) get lost in the sonic sludge. Oh and dance numbers? There’s hardly any! You get the opening sequence (which I just found annoying) and after that we see Stone and Gosling occasionally attempt a little soft-shoe shuffle stuff and some swanning about but none of it ever takes flight… even when they are, literally, actually flying.
So yeah, boring and dull but not really offensive… until…
Emma Stone has written a one-woman play which she is about to perform for the first time. But she is worried no-one will like it declaring, and she might as well be talking as the movie itself here, “It’s nostalgic. Will people like it?” to which Gosling tells her “Fuck ‘em!”
Er… no, fuck you movie! How dare you have such contempt for anyone who doesn’t buy into your off-the-peg, ersatz, nostalgic wallowing crap. Fuck you in your shallow little ass, an ass so shallow you’d be screaming in pain even before I’d pushed the tip in.
Yep, that one sent me over the edge.
However, having said all that, ‘La La Land’ isn’t a terrible film. It is too well made and does, I think, have its heart in the right place. There is enough in it to enjoy, I guess, if you’re not an elitist jazz obsessive like myself who gets annoyed at elitist jazz obsessives. And that could be the crux of the matter.
Ultimately ‘La La Land’ can be summed up by Ryan Gosling’s attitude towards jazz as an art form. It’s similar to the criticisms levelled against Wynton Marsalis: that he is a strident traditionalist who is endangering the future of jazz by trying to keep it preserved in aspic; fossilised. That jazz stopped in the 50s and that abstract experimentalism is anathema to “real” jazz. This is one of the reasons that although Marsalis is technically impressive as a player his music is exceptionally inert and, to put it bluntly, fucking dull. He has, as his critics rightly point out, turned jazz into a “museum piece”. And Gosling seems to come from a similar stance of rampant traditionalism. As Keith Jarrett said about Marsalis — “Wynton imitates other people’s styles too well. You can’t learn to imitate everyone else without a real deficit. He’s jazzy the same way someone who drives a BMW is sporty.” The same applies ‘La La Land’.
There was a time when that great innovator Miles Davis told Wynton Marsalis to “get the fuck off” the stage at a major music festival. I kinda felt like saying the same to this movie.