Thursday, January 5, 2017

LA LA LAND vs Jazz

I love musicals.  I have for most of my life.  LA LA LAND, a musical love story, got such rave reviews that I just couldn't wait to see it.  Well, I saw it.  Let me put it to you like this:  LA LA LAND is like a big, pretty Christmas gift box with a bow on top.  You open it to find it's full of brightly colored sheets of tissue paper.  And that's all.  Two of my favorite young actors, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, are the stars.  She plays Mia, the aspiring young actress in L.A.  Mia works in a coffee shop.  He's a jazz pianist struggling to make ends meet.  Their first encounter has a slight conflict and some misunderstanding.  But, like in the Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers musicals at RKO or the Gene Kelly & Judy Garland musicals at MGM, you know that they will eventually fall in love and dance together.
Sebastian (Gosling) loves jazz.  He loves the masters like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Hoagy Carmichael.  Mia doesn't.  She says, "I hate jazz."  Then she talks about Kenny G.
Seb and Mia fall for each other.  When she gives up after several career disappointments and leaves L.A., he urges her to not give up on her dreams and try one more audition.  And that's pretty much the plot.  Critics fell head over heels in love with this movie and, in their reviews, mentioned classic movie musicals like SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, THE BAND WAGON starring Fred Astaire, and the pastel-colored, exquisitely bittersweet French musical drama from the 1964,  THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURGH.  Those three musicals all have way better screenplays than LA LA LAND does.  They have more substance, more wit.  And that's my big criticism of LA LA LAND.  The actors were fine.  The screenplay is mediocre.  The screenplay was written by its director,  Damien Chazelle, a filmmaker born in the mid 80s.  He missed not only the Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals, he was in diapers during the Golden Age of music videos, a good number of which copied business from classic movie musical numbers.  Think of Madonna's "Material Girl"video in which she imitated Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" number from GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES.  Damien Chazelle watched classic musicals but did he learn about the vision of their directors -- directors like Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen?  And I don't mean just their vision through the camera lens.  Did he learn about tone, pacing, the power of a clever screenplay and the use of musical numbers to reveal character and advance the storyline?  That kind of vision.  LA LA LAND is tasty eye candy.   Chazelle frequently used what I call a Minnelli Red in LA LA LAND.  Think of the red when first we see Cyd Charisse as the hot new ballet star in THE BAND WAGON.  Then think of the red dress when she dances as the vamp with Fred Astaire in THE BAND WAGON's famous "Girl Hunt" jazz ballet.

Look at the red in Gigi's home in GIGI.  In LA LA LAND's final musical number, there's set decoration influence from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN's "Broadway Rhythm" number.
Mia is handed balloons as she's being made up -- like Audrey Hepburn as the new fashion model in Stanley Donen's FUNNY FACE with Hepburn and Fred Astaire.  LA LA LAND's story takes place in seasons, just like Minnelli's classic MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.  We see a screen card that says "Spring," "Winter" and so on.  Here's how Minnelli did it.
LA LA LAND opens with a fabulous number on a Los Angeles freeway.  Folks sing and dance out of their non-moving vehicles.  It's entertaining but it doesn't reveal anything about a lead character or lead characters.  Think of "The Jet Song" in WEST SIDE STORY, Judy Garland's "Over the Rainbow" in THE WIZARD OF OZ and her "The Boy Next Door" in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.  Look at Astaire and Rogers singing and dancing "Pick Yourself Up" in SWING TIME.  The freeway song, like all of the score, is pleasant. The whole zesty number just seems to be there for the sake of being there. Neither Stone nor Gosling are in that opening number.

Here's the one thing that REALLY annoyed me about LA LA LAND.  The disrespect for jazz.  Sebastian's sister in the opening scenes comes off like a great granddaughter of the Lauren Bacall character in 1950's YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN starring Kirk Douglas.  Douglas played the horn player who loved and learned from black jazz greats. Bacall was the wife who could've cared less about that music.  There's a LA LA LAND scene in which Sebastian explains the history of jazz to Mia while they're in a club.  A black jazz trio performs onstage.  At no time in his brief history lesson does Sebastian mention black people.  If I had the money, I would ship the Ken Burns JAZZ mini-series documentary that aired on PBS to the screenwriter/director.  As for the scene itself...well, there's nothin' like having a young white dude explain an African American art form in about 30 seconds.  With no mention African Americans.

Then comes John Legend as a guy who can get Sebastian some steady employment.  But he doesn't seem to have any reverence for the old jazz masters either.  He tells Seb that he's living in the past with the music he loves.  It's old stuff.  Why would a film director give a young black musician/songwriter that material to say about an American music art form started by black people?  Legend's character wants Seb to play more contemporary stuff.  At the open of the film, Seb is fired from his restaurant/lounge piano player job for playing jazz.  Seb's sister doesn't care for jazz, his boss forbids jazz to be played and Mia hates jazz.  Then John Legend's character casually disrespects jazz.   I would've given Legend dialogue like:  "You are keeping the memory of these jazz greats alive.  Jazz.  My people created the foundation for jazz.  They built the house on top of that foundation with an open door so folks of all colors could come in, enjoy, go out and build their own new material with what they learned from and loved about the masters of the music.  That's what I need you to do, Seb.  Build some new material inspired by that old house you loved being in."  See what I mean?

But there are some precious things about LA LA LAND.  The lead actors are likable and there's the lovely use of actual L.A. locations.  Here's a taste of LA LA LAND with an influence of the Michel Legrand music for THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG.

Here's a number I'd like you to see from 1953.  In THE BAND WAGON, Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse play dancers of different styles and different eras who are cast as the leads in a new Broadway musical.  In rehearsals, they argue.  But, as they open up to each other and take a walk through Central Park, they discover that their styles can blend -- professionally and romantically.  Here's Fred Astaire (then in his early 50s) and Cyd Charisse in the "Dancing in the Dark" number from Vincente Minnelli's THE BAND WAGON.  Watch it ...and then let's talk about great musicals with great musical talent.
LA LA LAND really cooks in the third act when Mia is absolutely fed up after a humiliating one-woman show she writes and performs.  Gosling is good.  However, they didn't really have much to play.  The biggest challenge for them was the musical numbers.  I'd suggest this -- see LA LA LAND and then watch the musical comedy classic, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor.  Both stories are set in L.A. and both focus on people in show biz.  1952's SINGIN' IN THE RAIN had characters dealing with new technology.  Hollywood's silent film era of the 1920s was ending quickly because of sound.  This new technology will revolutionize the entire movie-making industry.  LA LA LAND benefits from today's new technology.  You see the special effects in the dance numbers.  However, with the advantages of today's technology, notice which one of those two movie musicals has the more sparkling script and -- let's face it -- the more memorable dance numbers.  To me, LA LA LAND often felt like a colorful, original made-for-TV musical.  If I had to grade LA LA LAND, I would give it a C+.


  1. I'm so bummed! Taking my daughter to see this today, she's dying to see it, but now I'm sure it will leave a bad taste. It will give us something to talk about, but 'will Hillywood ever really integrate black and white lives' is a regular conversation already. I'll show her this when we come home - thanks for the heads up, and the great background notes!

  2. Stephanie, come back later and let me know what you thought of the movie.

  3. I felt the same way watching the film and C+ feels right to me. Moonlight is a big A+ and I wonder if part of my lack of enthusiasm for La La is the attention it's taking away from a great work like Moonlight. Maybe so but after its fun opening sequence I felt La La was pretty flat.



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