2010s, Musical

La La Land (2016)



Director/Screenwriter: Damien Chazelle

By Roderick Heath

A clogged LA freeway on a winter’s day, “Another Day of Sun,” cars backed up for miles on either side. Suddenly a spasm of frustration manifests itself not as shouting or horn-blowing, but as song, and the traffic jam erupts momentarily into carnivale, the humans caged in their rolling steel egoverses momentarily joining in shared celebration of the dreams and less glamorous reality that defines their lives. It’s the sort of absurdist set-piece I’m sure that has occurred to just about anyone who’s ever been stuck in such a traffic jam, and it retains a certain spiritual connection to the early dream sequence in that eternal touchstone of artistic self-appraisal in cinema, (1963), and even to the music video for REM’s “Everybody Hurts.” Damien Chazelle ultimately follows those models arcs towards melancholy reckonings with the gap between private passion and the dismay of modern living, but for the moment goes for big, raucous this-is-going-to-be-a-ride showmanship. It’s the sort of opening gambit that will surely split an audience right down the middle, between those who will be instantly swept up in the cued excitement and those who might uneasily gird themselves for what’s coming.


I was amongst the latter. Not because ebullient outdoors production numbers annoy me per se, but this one did. Chazelle’s camera spins and twists and cranes with showy, athletic mobility. But the showiness of the camerawork is overtly strenuous, technique without actual purpose, distracting from the fact that what it’s filming isn’t actually very well staged or choreographed; it is in fact rather a hymn to its own existence, a “wow, can you believe I’m pulling this in 2016?” statement. People stand on their car bonnets and throw their hands up and down and fling themselves about in conga lines. This immediately lays down a template that the rest of La La Land follows studiously: approximation of classic musical style served up like the coup of the century, but which on close examination proves to be all sizzle and no steak. Chazelle believes that the school of hard knocks is the path to greatness. This thesis he already explored in his scripts for Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano and his own Whiplash (both 2014), which purveyed the gym-coach mentality to artistic development: no pain, no gain, and never mind your pantywaist sensitivities. La La Land, his latest, depicts the exasperated romance of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), two Los Angeles wannabes. Grazing each other on the freeway at the start – he blasts his horn at her, she flips the bird at him – they soon find their paths repeatedly crossing, not always in the best of circumstances.


Mia wants to be an actress, and works as a barista in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. studio lot. As such, she’s surrounded by the legends of filmmaking past but entrapped within early 21st century economic impositions, pecked at by her boss and forced to watch actual famous people parade by whilst she develops contempt for the roundelay of fruitless auditions that is the rest of her life. Encouraged to attend a party by her roommate friends, Mia finishes up departing the disappointment and is forced to walk home when she finds her car has been towed. A salve for such sorrows comes as she passes by a restaurant and hears a beautiful tune being played, drawing her inside. The player is Sebastian, a talented pianist, whose love of classic jazz approaches religion: unfortunately he’s just violated the restaurant manager’s (J.K. Simmons) injunction to only play strictly timed Christmas tunes, and he’s fired summarily for this, leading Sebastian to furiously barge past Mia as she tries to thank him for the beautiful performance. Some weeks later, she runs into him again, this time playing keys in a ’80s pop cover band. Her chosen method of revenge is to request the band play A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran.” The duo’s grazing, sniping humour and Sebastian’s tendency to turn most encounters into some kind of confrontation gives way to sparks of attraction.


This moment was the only one in La La Land that really entertained me, although it treads terribly close to Saturday Night Live-style shtick, in large part because it’s one of the few vignettes that taps both Stone and Gosling’s ability to play comedy, and also because it offers a combination of joke and character moment that revolves around the cultural attitudes of the two characters, the disparity between Seb’s semi-messianic sense of duty by his chosen art form and the pop culture around him, and the infuriating way his and Mia’s attraction continues to manifest through apposite impulses. Stone and Gosling are both accomplished neo-wiseacres, and Chazelle arms them with a small arsenal of zingers and prickles to make them convincing as representatives of a knowing and chitinous modern breed. But once their surfaces are scratched, both characters are revealed as deeply, almost suffocatingly earnest. Sebastian’s dedication is seen first as monklike as he subsists in an apartment barely furnished, with a stool once owned by Hoagy Carmichael as object of veneration or seating depending on the moment’s need. His sister (I think) Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt) appears for one scene, offering La La Land a jolt of call-bullshit sarcasm that cuts through the single-mindedness of Seb and Mia’s obsessions.


One quality La La Land badly lacks is a major secondary voice or voices to lend depth to the palette, the kind they used to get people like Oscar Levant or Thelma Ritter to offer, pipes of sarcasm to put some smog in the airiness. When the few alternate voices that do come in Chazelle’s script, they’re nearly strictly pitched as rhetorical devices to push our characters about, like Simmons’ cameo as the asshole manager who prevails upon Seb not to play “the free jazz,” and, later, John Legend’s Keith, a successful band leader who seduces Seb into playing with his band with a get-behind-me-Satan spiel about the need for jazz to evolve. Part of this might be explained by the fact that both Seb and Mia bring their own snark, but only long enough to be halfway convincing as contemporary types before we get into more traditional romanticism. But the course of true love and successful lifestyle maintenance never does run smooth. Mia lives with three other young women (Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, and Sonoya Mizuno) at the start who form both her posse and chorus line, dragging her into action at the Hollywood party where the stage seems set for a good production number. Except no real production number arrives, just more of Chazelle’s spinning camerawork and background dancers throwing their hands in the air again.


After a certain point, Mia’s pals vanish from the party, and then from the film. Her moment of transcendent bliss overhearing Seb’s playing, is his moment of self-indulgence for which he pays an instant price. I can handle the notion of a restaurant manager so oblivious that anything but straight-up tunes to wheedle diners’ ears will piss him off, even if I don’t really believe it, and I sense it’s just a device to set up Seb’s humiliation; what I can’t quite buy is the interaction of writing and vision we get here, the manager’s quip about free jazz and the slightly pompous but pretty anodyne piece of improvisation that costs Seb his job but charms Mia. It’s like the music supervisor had a slightly different copy of the script to the director and actors. Mia is suddenly seen to be saddled with a Chad Cliché yuppie boyfriend who turns up just in time for her to run out on him, heading instead to meet up with Seb at a screening of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a venture that segues into a tour of the Griffith Observatory where rapture blooms and the heavens open, a lovely moment that nonetheless seems to come out of a different film. Later, Seb tries to explain to Mia the value of jazz as active expression of America’s melting pot brilliance, the product of the constant shunt and shove of multiple voices.


This vignette is irksome on several levels, not least because Chazelle makes Mia the easily schooled avatar of an audience he presumes associates this beloved musical style with smooth jazz bilge, not the rocky, high-stakes art form he worships. And it’s not just the fact that the film turns into an NPR essay here. It’s that Chazelle backs away from finding any interesting conceptual way of exploring Seb’s love cinematically. In the end, the movie that proposes to revitalise certain classical precepts in the musical is just another contemporary film where someone talks too much. And it’s on this level that La La Land repeatedly and conspicuously fails, in weaving its use of the form with its subject, until one climactic sequence towards the end, in which Mia’s audition for a crucial role becomes a song number. There’s no pervading sense of jazz as the informing art here, nor of any other strong contemporary pop music form, although Chazelle evidently sees a connection between his understanding of jazz and his pursuit of giving new meaning to an old aesthetic in the musical form. His visual approach offers sublimation of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1966) insistently, aiming to recreate Demy’s skilful, deceptively rich blend of casual realism and stylisation, usually accomplished through careful redressing of real locations and employment of strong, colour-coded costuming and lighting. Sometimes, Chazelle succeeds, particularly in the shots of Mia and her gal-pals striding out to battle in their coloured frocks, her and Seb’s tentative shuffle before the mauve-hued sunset in the Hollywood hills, and a nicely quiet diminuendo scene where Seb sings to himself and dances on a pier at sunset, stealing away an old man’s wife for a moment of bewildered, good-natured dancing. Chazelle at least suggests schooling in the musical and its craft, avoiding the cut-on-the-beat style informed by music videos that’s infected the form since the early ’80s, instead going for long, lateral shots in the traditional musical manner to drink in physical context and the performers’ actions. And Linus Sandgren’s photography really is excellent.


Demy’s approach had hardly been forgotten to film history; in fact it was rather quickly assimilated and built upon by an array of American New Wave and Movie Brat filmmakers, many of whom tried their hand at fusing together the outsized fantasias of musicals with the kind of ragged, woozy, rough-and-tumble authenticity of their ethos. The 1970s and early ’80s produced a sprawl of gutsy crossbreeds in the wake of the musical genre’s official collapse as a mode following a string of huge-budget bombs. Some of these were deliberately frothy, like Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975), but more often these were sharper, grittier critiques of the genre’s usual detachment from the reality of love and coupling as well as society. Hence Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) and Francis Coppola’s One From the Heart (1981) focused on fractious romances raddled by human feeling in all its livewire anxiety, and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) turned Fosse’s own life and experiences as a choreographer into the subject of a superlatively sarcastic opus. One thing all of these had in common was their spiky, anti-populist emotional intensity, which made them the opposite of what musicals have come to be considered as the genre languishing in a permanent pop culture demimonde. In the past 20 years or so, every now and then we get a film that’s going to make the musical great again, be it synthetic pizazz like Chicago (2002) or full-on blazing shit like Les Miserables (2012). And if one apostatises with any of these, one will be told one just doesn’t like musicals. Or not as much as another person, who wants the form reborn in all its old glory and will greet any new, major, proper version of it as manna.


In the same way, the new-wave musicals aren’t real musicals, because they’re not pretty and escapist and nostalgic. And of course, let us not speak of what happened to the disco musical. Never mind the far more interesting examples of the oddball explorations of the genre in recent years, from the Outkast-scored and starring vehicle Idlewild (2006) to John Turturro’s suburban karaoke tragedy Romance and Cigarettes (2005), Jacob Krupnick’s On the Town rewrite Girl Walk // All Day (2011) and Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (2015), which commit the sins of using pop music and foregrounding artifice, and have moments your grandmother won’t like. La La Land has been quickly celebrated as a new-age musical blending frivolity and melancholy, but I find on many crucial levels it hit me as a betrayal of the legacy of the gritty musical, one that quietly gelds this movement even whilst proposing to revive it. Particularly considering that its storyline and basic themes represent a filch not on Demy but on Scorsese. In La La Land, as in New York, New York, the theme is the troubled love of a couple joined by mutual admiration but torn apart by diverging career intentions, revolving around the disparity between jazz performance and mainstream pop celebrity, climaxing with an extended restaging of the basic plot as a stylised, more pure kind of old Hollywood fantasy designed to illustrate the contrast between the way things turn out and the way we’d like them to.


La La Land is squeaky clean in spite of its attempt to talk about some mildly distressing things as relationships that don’t work out and the pressures of money that make people do things they don’t want to, as opposed to the classic musical where, as Gilda Radner once memorably phrased it, people never had to work or buy food. La La Land’s moments of bruising, disillusioning conflict are entirely contrived – the set-piece dinner table sequence where Mia and Seb first fight over Seb’s compromised artistry and Mia’s looming date with destiny, where mild peevishness substitutes for unforgivable words, and the subsequent scene where Seb misses her show, a moment that could have been avoided with the newfangled invention call the telephone. Compared to the scene in New York, New York when Robert De Niro gets dragged out of the club in a rage of stoked jealousy, this is so wet it would barely pass muster as dramatic development on a Chuck Lorre sitcom.


Chazelle’s nominal assault on musical tradition is not to give a traditional happy ending where love conquers all. But he leavens the experience by giving his characters everything else they want, which just happens to be a successful LA nightclub, a period recording and touring with a popular musical outfit, and becoming an international movie star. Wow, some takedown of the Hollywood dream. Instead, La La Land is an ode to hermetic qualities. Chazelle turns the urbane strangeness and sprawl of modern LA into a depopulated stage for weak song-and-dance numbers featuring two cute but underutilised white-bread stars, replete with odes to bygone pleasures that often reveal a crucial misunderstanding about what those pleasures work. There’s nothing witty or sly or sublime or even particularly sexy about Chazelle’s approach, in spite of his mimicry of the styles he sets out to recreate. La La Land is a bright neon sign describing its own facetious charm. This wouldn’t count for much if the film was successful simply on the level of musical experience, but this is where it’s most disappointing. The music score for La La Land is so brain-numbingly banal that apart from Gosling’s oft-repeated refrain (“City of stars, are you shining just for me?”) I couldn’t remember two notes from the film minutes after it finished. It bears no inflection of any musical style apart from the most flat-rate off-Broadway stuff—least of all the sinuosity and rhythmic complexity of jazz.


Perhaps La La Land represents the total victory of the last decade or so of shows like American Idol and Dancing With The Stars, shows that have carefully trained audiences to whoop and holler wildly when blandly talented neophytes and familiar celebrities who can barely sing or dance make a show of their mastery of a few soft-shoe steps. I felt a certain empathy for Sebastian in many regards: like him, I’m a jazz fan, particularly of the genre’s heights from the 1940s to the early 1970s, and I have violently mixed feelings about what’s happened to it since then. Seb however never feels like a real person – neither does Mia, but for slightly different reasons. Even the more interesting modern branches of jazz fusion don’t seem to have registered with Chazelle – Euro electroswing for instance, which, with practitioners like Caravan Palace, is a vibrant and utterly danceable wing of the genre, and would have made a great pedestal for this project. Whilst the indictments of Seb as some kind of white saviour figure with his obsession with putting his talents to best use sustaining and helping reinvigorate jazz very quickly reach the end of credulity (the limit of his ambition in this regard is to open a jazz club, and thus provide a platform for artists like himself, rather than to become the king of all jazz musicians), it’s hard to ignore the strident, rather strained aspect to the dramatic development whereby he becomes a member of Keith’s ensemble and finds roaring success in a band that offers a squishy melange of pop, soul, and jazz.


Chazelle offers one major performance scene for this outfit, during which Mia glances about in bewilderment over the crowd’s enjoyment and Seb’s apparent selling out. Although this song isn’t anything particularly special either, it reminded me a little of the scene in Dreamgirls (2006) when “One Night Only,” the unctuously meaningful ballad, was restaged as disco schlock: the “bad” song is more entertaining than the “good” ones. Which might even be Chazelle’s point — I just don’t know. La La Land drops hints to a cultural thesis that it then keeps swerving to avoid stating in any depth. What it is officially is a bittersweet romance where Seb and Mia are pulled together and then apart by their aspirations, their mutual understanding of each other as artists who feed on creation and fade when caged but also knowing that life means compromise. Seb’s commitment to Keith’s band sees him forced to hang about for a publicity photo shoot whilst Mia performs the one-woman stage show he encouraged her to write, which seems to bomb badly, leaving Mia distraught enough with the state of her life to flee back to her home town. Seb tracks her there when he learns a casting agent saw her show and wants her to audition for a major part: Seb’s coaxing draws her back into action, and her audition piece is a testimony to the example of her bohemian relative whose life in Paris has inspired her ambition to be an actress. It’s a big-ticket moment that goes for all the feels and finally seems to flesh out aspects of Mia as a character even as it actually underlines how generic she is, and how carefully calculated this scene is.


Gosling and Stone’s chemistry, which first manifested in the otherwise dreadful Gangster Squad (2012), here at least gets some space to stretch its legs: they’re both very good at making you like them even when playing faintly insufferable parts, a gift that’s vital in selling Seb and Mia, particularly from Stone in her portrait of Mia’s squall of apocalyptic feeling following her seeming humiliation in staging her play. Whatever else it does, La La Land understands what movie stardom is about, its facility in transmuting loose ideas and assortments of emotional reflexes into creations of great power on screen. And yet I’ve seen other films that make far better use of both stars – take for interest Gosling’s other film of 2016, The Nice Guys, which allowed him to reference a host of classic comedic actors whilst also stitching together a dynamic portrait of a man lagging slightly out of reality’s time frame from a mixture of grief and booze. By comparison Seb never moves out of the status of a kind of human placard. The issue at the heart of the film, one that’s relatively original and specific, is slightly removed from the more familiar making-it concerns; it’s actually the attempt to delve into the problems that beset many show business relationships, the time spent apart enforced by asymmetric professional demands. This is the one theme attacked by Chazelle that doesn’t feel done to death. What’s interesting is that La La Land offers a kind of calculus to the modern audience about what it would find the hardest to deal with – career failure or romantic failure. The answer is given as both Mia and Seb gain everything they want except each other. So Chazelle skips forward a few years to when Mia is a success and married to some dude and has kids, and one night fate directs them into a club that proves to be Seb’s, his apparently very successful showcase for old-school jazz. Seb, spotting Mia in the crowd, plays the same piece that enticed her into the restaurant all that time ago, thus sending the film off into an extended fantasia that re-enacts their relationship more perfectly, to the point where they’re married with kids themselves.


This sequence finally blew my tolerance fuse with this film, as Chazelle here rips off the “Happy Endings” sequence at the end of New York, New York, in offering an upbeat restaging of the narrative as a full-bore, total-style facsimile of classic musical method. Except it’s been shorn of all the ironic meaning Scorsese offered his climax with, for “Happy Endings” converted the messy stuff of life into a vision that would seem joyful to some and a sour mockery to others, and also commented on the way Hollywood mines and distorts life, questioning the ways and reasons why we tolerate convenient lies. There’s no such subtext to what La La Land offers, in part because it’s avoided any dialectic between the false and real. For Chazelle, this is just another facet of his showmanship, sleight of hand pulled to suggest there was actually some depth to this coupling and to work his audience over. Meanwhile La La Land ultimately has nothing actually bad to say about Hollywood, the cult of celebrity or the problems of dreams deferred, except for the fact that the film industry tends to be so forward-looking that it has no time for the past – not a fault I’ve noticed besetting the Academy voters lately. Somewhat amazingly, although not a word was spoken in it, Girl Walk // All Day managed to say far more about the uneasy relationship between personal art and joy and capitalism and society, building to the wonderful moment when its heroine realised her seduction by consumerism was erasing her identity and she kicked off her store-bought finery, all scored to music that captured the vibrant clamour of modern pop culture’s manifold dimensions. By comparison, La La Land remains wedged in its comfortable, rather smug niche, challenging nothing, reinventing nothing.


14 thoughts on “La La Land (2016)

  1. Although I haven’t watched any, I thought that the Dancing with the Talent type TV shows meant that we were the in the midst of a great era of dancing and singing. So it’s pretty disappointing to hear that this musical doesn’t have any decent dancing or singing in it.

    I’m old school – a musical should feature astonishing dance numbers filmed in long/medium shots, like for Astaire, or with a camera that moves like a partner, like for Kelly. Flashy camerawork thatntries to cover up the dancers’ lack of skill is just sad. See also some bad martial arts movies.


  2. Marilyn says:

    Bev – The dancing in the opening number is professional, but as Rod says, not very well rendered. Beyond that, Emma and Ryan are endearing in their performances, but they are amateur singers and dancers. I was impressed with Ryan’s quick study on playing piano. I’m relatively sure he was dubbed, but his fingers hit all the keys.

    Rod – It’s hard to criticize La La Land for NOT being something else. Its ambitions are very modest, and I don’t think it’s another in a line of “save the musical” contenders. The musical isn’t dead, just like jazz isn’t dead. It IS easy to criticize awarding organizations for falling for it, but then, the ones that did – the foreign press and New Yorkers – are in love with this kind of thing. I thought the film echoed Demy much more strongly than Scorsese. There is such a sense of cool, a muting of showmanship in French musicals as compared with the American variety, a return to older forms (see Resnais’ Not on the Lips for a good example). As I said before, Rod, this film felt very French to me – frothy, with a little bit of sadness.

    I think your criticisms of its plot conveniences – YES to the scene with J.K. Simmons, YES to the thrown-away characters – are dead on. I also thought Mia’s sort of stunned look at the crowd enjoying John Legend was a total non sequitur. She hated jazz, and suddenly she’s appalled by some music that she used to like? They haven’t been dating long enough for her tastes to have evolved so dramatically, and she herself says she liked the music in a very convincing way.

    Didn’t like “City of Light” that much. Thought “Another Day of Sun” was very catchy. But I had to see the film a second time to remember the music.


  3. Roderick says:

    I dare say one’s feelings about this sort of thing come down to something a quote from a film I know you like Mare – “It’s the vibe.” If you buy into it, you’ll roll with it; if not, woe betide you. I think what really frustrated me about this in the end was that I felt it was on the right track in many ways – the kind of film I might have liked to try and make in Chazelle’s position, only to keep seeing the actual, great neo-musical it might have been with more work and a richer array of collaborators. I think our overlapping points of discontent help to clarify this. We do tend to forget that a lot of classic musicals were worked over again and again for years if not decades, or else took standards for their scores eg An American in Paris and Singin’ In the Rain. I’m still not really buying this “it feels French” thing much though. The last French variant on this sort of thing I saw was Love Songs, which was far more specific in burrowing into contemporary mores and evanescent emotions. Chazelle is undoubtedly an ambitious and relatively atypical talent, but he’s also someone who knows how success in Hollywood works – you high-pressure the audience on so many levels to buy your goods. The contrivances to force the plot along make this clear to me. And whilst I certainly agree Chazelle’s aiming for Demy’s feeling, once again, and I can’t say this enough, structurally the film follows New York, New York pretty much beat for beat.

    Bev, certainly at least those types of shows have put this sort of thing back in the lounge room, which was an achievement, but at the expense of only offering a very thin slice of the cultural pie.


  4. Marilyn says:

    Ha ha! Yes, “It’s the vibe” for sure! And I remember you NOT liking that film.

    I’m not really defending this film all that much. It felt off the whole time I was watching it, and it took your analysis for me to understand exactly why. Chazelle is very sly about how to pull a fast one on the audience while still trying to make some kind of personal art. I just rented his Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and hope to make some kind of comparison in my head once I’ve seen it. Sounds like a precursor to La La Land.


  5. Roderick says:

    Oh, well, I certainly don’t hate The Castle, I just think it’s basically a TV sitcom pilot writ large. And, indeed, we’re getting into about the third generation of actual TV sitcoms clearly under its influence on Aussie television. I’d actually be very interested to hear your thoughts on Guy and Madeline. I’ll admit that the essential premise of Whiplash made me very uneasy about Chazelle, and it hasn’t really dissipated.


  6. André Dick says:

    Excellent review, Roderick. I do not consider it a musical, but a novel with some songs. I found it really exciting, especially the finale, and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone work better than Crazy, stupid, love. I think the themes seem superficial and the characters work as symbols, but Chazelle has obvious improvements over Whiplash: I was interested in these characters and the whole story blends joy and melancholy beautifully.


  7. Roderick says:

    “a novel with some songs”

    That’s pretty right, Andre. I still haven’t seen Crazy, Stupid, Love yet. I ought to, I suppose, for both the stars and also because Ficcara and Requa are pretty good light entertainers.


  8. La La Land remains wedged in its comfortable, rather smug niche, challenging nothing, reinventing nothing.

    In this regard, it reminded me vividly of Rent, another artsy contemporary musical I despise because its smug self-righteousness. And was reminded of two points from Lindsay Ellis’ recent trashing of that movie while watching this. One, mainstream films concerning counter-establishment ‘don’t sell out’ narratives tend to fail because they “look pretty and do as little as possible”; they advocate a simple choice between assimilation and rejection of a system instead of challenging it, because they are propagated by a ruling class that’s only moderately, symbolically sympathetic to the underclass. Second, poverty in any form is not sexy or radical. That second point was on replay in my mind during the scenes in Sebastian’s old apartment.

    I was really disappointed with La La Land, and I find the reactionary “make pop cinema great again” vibe of its storytelling and aesthetics very disturbing – an ominous sign of the industry in America for the next few years to come. I agree with Marilyn that the epic musical is far from dead, just as sci-fi or any other genre of film is far from dead, but it can’t and won’t survive in this state of destructive nostalgic life-support.

    At least in Whiplash, Chazelle took more creative risks with the storytelling, even it ended up being too over-the-top.


  9. André Dick says:

    Crazy, stupid, love is a beautiful movie, in my opinion. I do not know if I considered more of La La Land because I already appreciated Gosling and Emma in that film and it seemed, in a way, a continuation in another context. If you have a chance, try to watch.


  10. Roderick says:

    Hi Jason. Well, at least I can extend this film this much praise: at least it’s not Rent, the film of which is utter shit (seen the stage show, anyone? was it remotely superior?). I can’t argue with either of your main points, although I’m straining to resist making any connections between this and Trumpism; given pop culture’s pursuit of rainbows of nostalgia in every direction at the moment. I know what you mean about the poverty bit. I once actually wrote a short story about the gruelling psychic moment you go through when you suddenly stop feeling like you live in bohemia and realise you’re just dirt poor. And as to your second point, there is a fascinating avoidance of the now-pervasive ways people experience that culture now in the film. Where’s Seb’s YouTube channel? Does he have no time for side projects? And why are all the cultural reference points so dated? Yeah, I love Rebel Without a Cause too, but did we have to go with such a cliché? That’s the sort of thing that gave me the uncomfortable feeling I was looking at the all-talking, all-singing version of one of those movie star frescoes you see in the odd McDonalds, a take on the Hollywood tradition that is very carefully digestible and commodified.

    Andre: all right, you’ve sold me. I’ll track CSL down.


  11. This is always one of the best blog posts of the year, I think. It covers so much ground and gives such a good survey of the various posts and reviews of the last 12 months. Keep it up!

    I liked La La Land more than you, but I also felt parts of it, especially toward the beginning, were forced. So I don’t blame others for not feeling it click. But I loved the music, I was humming more than one of the songs for days afterward, and I thought the ending was beautiful, and made up for the rockiness from before.

    I really appreciate the love for Knight of Cups shown here and in the comments. I loved the movie, and it probably remains my #1 for the year, despite all the flack it’s taken. It feels like people are watching it wrong. Malick is pushing towards abstraction and complex commentary/metaphors/ideas, not character drama. It’s not going to satisfy those who want the same sense of emotional build-up that Thin Red Line and The New World dealt in, but that’s not because Malick’s slipping, it’s because he’s pushing forward and doing things differently. This felt like his abstract, allegorical rendition of an existentialist novel–I thought of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.

    Anyway, people are still reading, so keep it up!


  12. Roderick says:

    Hi Stephen. I think you might have meant to comment on my Confessions piece but did so on the La La Land review by mistake, but not to worry.

    I dunno. Some people must just different ears to me. I was left so utterly unrocked by La La Land’s score. Knight of Cups though – well, I’d never expect such a work to be easy chewing for a lot of casual viewers, but the ways so many, even inquisitive critics decided to dismiss it out of hand really has me beggared. But then again, a survey of this year’s most-praised work tells me everything I need to know in that regard: films with placard messaging are in, films of aesthetic challenge are out.


  13. Sam Juliano says:

    I’ve encountered a formidable degree of consternation whenever I have pondered coming to this review thread. But alas I am ready now. 🙂 This is one of my favorite films of the entire year and I am NOT afraid to say it here or anywhere else. I found none of the contrivances claimed in this review, nor did I find that the magnificent hybrid score needed a second viewing to appreciate. It is a FABULOUS score. And this is a fabulous film, superbly borrowing from Demy, Minelli, Donen,and Curtiz. There was NO WAY under the sun Rod was going to go for this film. NO WAY! I know him and his taste in movies far too long. You can go on and on and on and justify the dislike by all this subjective trashing, but it tells me far more about you than it does about this film. Similarly, my liking the film tells you far more about ME than it does about LA LA LAND. I don’t have to remind Rod how much I like him and his incomparable scholarship, but we are not in agreement plenty of times. Our taste is just different. I thought that opening on the highly was dynamite. I was blown away by City of Stars and Audition, and I fell lock, stock and barrel for the staccato editing, silhouette laden visuals and deft choreography. Stone did quite well with her acting and vocals; Gosling was solid enough without breaking any musical performance records.

    Marilyn, the New Yorkers (NYFCC) do not normally like musicals at all – they are usually a very snobby lot, aside from their choice of RETURN TO THE KING. They are normally art house. LA LA LAND is landing on tons of best lists and even at METACRITIC is the #2 film of the year behind. This hasn’t been a New York thing at all–the movie has taken the film community by storm. The LA CRITICS reportedly had it #2 behind MOONLIGHT.

    LA LA LAND is my own #2 film of 2016 (Only Larrain’s JACKIE is ahead of it) and I have so far seen it three times. I am going to visit Rod’s year-end post now, having been eternally delayed by the exasperating demands of children’s literature in the past weeks. The typically superbly written review here proves its writer knows well how to defend his position as always, but takes no account of the great equalizer -TASTE- which accounts how you (and to a degree Marilyn) can watch the same film yet come out with drastically different views. Mind you, there are others I know and respect who are in your camp as well. The main issue is a kind of resentment for Chazelle for “daring” to act like he might have just a little bit of knowledge or appreciation for the musical form. I mean its like nobody should have the temerity to try and update the form. There is a reason why the masses are smitten with this film and its presentation in this chaotic time. A simple theme -being in love- brought to kaleidoscopic invention with a surprisingly melodic score and some irresistible stylistics. I just bought the score CD yesterday and am emboldened further with my positive assessment.

    Anyway, we are very close friends and we can disagree. I have been making my feelings known on FB, so nothing I say here is anything new. There were a number of films Rod loved like ELLE and WILDERPEOPLE among others that I did NOT like, so what of it?

    This is all fair enough. I adore the film, you do not. Life goes on, and I haven’t lost a speck of respect for you remotely. 🙂


  14. Sam Juliano says:

    ….nor did I find that the magnificent hybrid score needed a second viewing to appreciate……

    Obviously, “listening, not as I stated, “viewing.” Ugh.


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