this review is dedicated to the memory of
Emmanuelle Riva who died earlier today
My sore throat is burning and my mind is still reeling from La La Land. Christ it's one of those reviews where you don't even know where to begin. It's all so overwhelming you have to get distracted for a minute or two. But then, gradually, your mind starts jumping all over yesterday's experience (scratchy vinyl, restless needle, that sort of thing) and picks out one particular conversation.
Naturally, it's a conversation about jazz. One character is saying that jazz has to be the music of the future, the way it was back in late 50s and early 60s. People like Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane pushed jazz into whichever direction they chose, creating something exceptional in the process. The question that arises here is how you achieve that. This character, a young jazzman of the most repulsive sort, has no intention of doing anything new. Rather, he is going for that cowardly option of adapting to the modern times. It's a flawed option, of course, and the film will try to confirm that, but oh the irony.
Two years ago, Damien Chazelle made Whiplash, one of my absolute favourite films in recent years. I could go on for hours about all those things Whiplash did well, but in this particular review I will say what that film did not do: Whiplash never tried to sell jazz cheap.
La La Land does just that.
Ryan Gosling, usually a good actor (Drive, The Ides Of March), is a hologram in La La Land. He doesn't do anything, he's just there. Emma Stone acts her guts out (arguably trying too hard in a few places), but Gosling only comes alive in the amusing 'bite your lip' scene. Obviously it doesn't help that his character is an embarrassing caricature, a hackneyed stereotype of a jazz fan that will no doubt make you cringe half the time.
Which brings me to the point that seems completely inescapable: there is no chemistry between the characters of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. There is no emotional connection. They are just two random people who happen to inhabit the screen and the beautiful landscape at more or less the same time. And for a musical about love, that's a fatal flaw.
When I say 'fatal', I do of course realise that I'm in desperate minority as everyone and their grandmother loved La La Land. Granted, a woman to the right of me fell asleep at some point in the frankly vapid middle section of the film, but there were people screaming with joy and clapping themselves into fits. And how do you say that millions of people are wrong? You don't just tell them that style isn't everything and neither is technical brilliance.
To me, the film did that most heinous thing a work of art can do: it was trying so hard to be liked. Every second of it. As one critic put it, this film is like a dog. It will do whatever you want to get a biscuit. It will be warm and it will be cuddly. It will be that big Hollywood movie about Hollywood. And for what? For empty posturing? For tedious dialogues? For a half-baked plot? For a cliched story that only last year, in 2016, was done so much better in Woody Allen's decidedly non-classic Cafe Society?
Speaking of cafes, there's one that I go to quite often these days. I drink coffee, I look at people and I write. Usually, the music here is great, ranging from Glenn Miller to Bill Evans to Nick Cave. However, yesterday the owner's daughter brought her new iPhone and started blasting the soundtrack of La La Land all through the place. It was so loud I was losing my focus. A few people, who were finding it increasingly hard to communicate, said oh that's right, this music is fantastic and it's from the amazing La La Land.
It was just so random and inconsequential. Then I watched them get back to their lattes and their cappuccinos and thought of that place in Southern California where they 'worship everything and value nothing'.