La La Land is a movie IÂ should have enjoyed, what with the singing and the dancing and its many references toÂ classic Hollywood movie musicals and 60’sÂ French jazz styleÂ â€“ myÂ very bread and butter!Â AndÂ occasionally I did enjoy it, but most of the time I just had this naggingÂ feeling thatÂ something, or a lot of things rather, were missing.
There’s two basic approaches to a movie that trades in this brandÂ of nostalgia:
- you tell a deeply felt story using an anachronistic style enriched with contemporary detail/sensibility to give it a new texture and a timeless feel or
- you do a loving, high camp homage that is allÂ aboutÂ style, recontextualizing/repurposing/juxtaposing it as the very clay in your hands.
or you know, some combination of both. Which is what I thinkÂ La La Land was trying to do, but ended up doingÂ neither, or, perhaps more charitably, did such a watered-down version of both that it canceled itself out and left us clad in GAP khakisÂ when we’d rather be swaddledÂ in mink stoles.
Strategy #1: historical style X contemporary detail = a new story imbued with a sense of timelessness
If you’re going to do this, you have to put a lot of thought into theÂ details, because therein lies the interest and texture of the film (/play/opera/musical/project). AlmodÃ³var does this even when he’s nominally going for the campier (#2) approach. He can’t help it.
So if you’reÂ going to make a movie about a contemporary jazz pianist whose main struggle is one of artistic freedom v. societal norms and expectationsÂ it would maybe help to get the details right about what a contemporary jazz artist looks like w/r/t the realities of the music and such a career.
Now. Our protagonist’s basic musical sensibility isÂ ‘pure jazz’ = McCoy TynerishÂ post-bop, ‘free jazz’ = Claude Bolling Writes a Cadenza, and ‘sell-out jazz’ = mid-career Stevie Wonder.
And you know, there are those dudes out there who are still into the post-bop purist thing, but if that’s what we’re going for, let’s go for it, especiallyÂ in the music. The score, which consists of six original songs, isn’tÂ badÂ but itÂ definitely doesn’tÂ go there. Harmonically, the songs hover in a mildly jazzyÂ 5-to-6 chord pop fusion area, when they might insteadÂ ascendÂ to a more complex 10-to-12 chord jazz standard territory, or even 8-to-9 chord broadway showtune territory â€“ can someone give me a straight up secondary dominant up here??
[Cred where she be due though: the composer, Justin Hurwitz, wrote not only the songs, but the entire score, including the orchestration,Â a rarity in Hollywood, and I lovedÂ some of his orchestrational touches, with obvious nods to Philippe Rombi (Angel, for example) and the BjÃ¶rk/Vincent Mendoza collaboration onÂ Dancer in the DarkÂ (though I longed for that score’s kaleidoscopic brilliance!)]
Our protagonist isn’t only angryÂ withÂ every post-Weather Report development jazz, he’s also upset that his former club is now a “tapas and samba” place â€“ as if that didn’t sound like a veritableÂ match made in heaven!Â It seems to me like a more interesting and plot-consistent take on the new place would be if it were cast as a pop/hip-hop venue, aka the music of our very time.
But mentioning hip-hop or other Contemporary Urban Musicks would veer us intoÂ a whole racial dynamic that Mr. Chazelle seems very squeamish about, and any time theÂ film strays too far into said territory it reveals a nervous tokenism. (Two lily-white protagonists? Fill up your jazz club with black people! That’s notÂ what most jazz clubs look like these days, but hey, you stay balanced.)
Strategy #2:Â historical style X heightened/deconstructed detail = high camp (which often turns out to be a potent delivery system for a serious messages about our own time)
Chazelle leans more towards this approach and he has some successful moments. My favorite was the dream ballet at the end (whatupÂ Agnes!!) with its use ofÂ On The Town style backdrops set on a studio soundstage and its nods to Jerome Robbins choreography.
Jacques Demy is a big influence on the film too, particularlyÂ Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. But it’s like, whateverÂ you use as your starting point, you gotta NextÂ Level that shit, and that’s hard to do with Demy, because his approach toÂ film style and fantasy are already pretty gonzo (have you seen,Â par example, Peau d’Ã¢ne??)
FranÃ§ois Ozon is a director who loves to playÂ pastiche with the likes of Demy and Minelli and these old Hollywood musicals and it’s worth comparing his work with Chazelle’s. InÂ Water Drops on Burning Rocks,Â 8 Femmes, andÂ Angel, Ozon imbues hisÂ stylistic allusions with a zany irreverenceÂ and a free spirit that makes La La LandÂ look clichÃ©d.
And here’s the secret about these two approaches: you don’t have to pick just one! Get you a man who can do both! You know how there’s “Serious AlmodÃ³var” and “Playful AlmodÃ³var”? Guess what girl â€“ she the same mofo!!!
Am I being too mean? The Dream Ballet, the Observatory sequence, the opening partyÂ were all fun and interesting and good. The movie offered these andÂ otherÂ magical moments where the combination of picture and score set sail (flute trillz be praised y’all!)
But the stakes were low, and I can only imagine the protagonists’ bland trade-offs are indicative of Damien Chazelle’s rather frictionless career. This struck meÂ as an honest movie, just not anÂ interesting one.
And I’m not suggesting that he should write aÂ gritty, racially-charged story of an out-of-control artist struggling with abuse. If he had just imbued this particular story with a richer level of detail and zestier approach to style, it would have burst off the screen instead of just sitting there. For a movie about lives not lived and paths not taken, there wereÂ an awful lot of missed opportunities.