Of all film genres, the musical film is the one arguably most betrayed by the ascendancy of other forms. I first fell in love with the genre when being taken to Greek movies at Melbourne picture houses in the 1970s, watching Aliki Vougiouklaki seamlessly abandon the contrivances of the melodramatic or comic plot and break into song and dance on the port of an Aegean island or on a square in the Plaka, the Acropolis a glorious backdrop to the frenetic choreography. The history of the musical is dominated by the output of both Hollywood and Bollywood, but what gets forgotten is how central it was to national cinemas across the globe.
The advent of television brought performers and music into living rooms, and this coincided with the splintering of musical taste brought about by the development of the teenager. It became increasingly difficult for the genre to find a musical language that spoke across generations and across fashion. Recently, the most successful movie musicals have traded on nostalgia, and so a film such as Mamma Mia! becomes the equivalent of watching a classic rock band re-form and go out on the road, a family event that can’t help but feel a bit cheapened and embarrassing. Even the best of musicals from the past 25 years or so, such as John Waters’ Hairspray, are often heavily indebted to our sentiment for nostalgia.
Two directors were pivotal in bringing a modernist sensibility to the film musical. Jacques Demy created a swooning and lushly romantic operatic mise en scène in his 1960s films The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, celebrating the traditional musical but telling stories of working-class alienation and despair that imbued the films with a distinctly New Wave sensibility. In the United States, first in Cabaret (1972) and then in All That Jazz (1979), Bob Fosse wrenched the musical away from the family audience. Adult and amphetamine-driven, realist and paranoid, I consider both some of the greatest works of art in film. I still recall vividly watching the former at a revival screening in the 1990s. The audience was full of young people ready to whoop and holler and camp it up with Liza Minnelli. By the end, having been made witness to the poverty and despair of the late Weimar period, and to the rise of the obscenity of Nazism, the shock in that audience was palpable, their silence profound. Fosse had destroyed the happy ending. The musical film could never be the same again.
I hope I am forgiven for the precis of the musical film I have offered above. I do so because I don’t think it is possible to understand Damien Chazelle’s new musical film, La La Land, without understanding this history. It is self-conscious in its homage to the traditional Hollywood musical, referencing films such as Singing in the Rain, The Band Wagon and An American in Paris, as well as the great romantic dance teams of Astaire and Rogers and Charisse and Kelly. But in terms of story, it anchors its style and musical lyricism to Demy’s work, most clearly in the light opera of Justin Hurwitz’s libretto and score, a definite nod to the work of Michel Legrand on the Demy films. And like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it uses actors not known for their singing or dancing.
Emma Stone plays Mia, a young woman struggling to deal with the humiliations of being an auditioning actor in Hollywood. The boy she meets is Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling, a pianist almost fanatical in his obsession with jazz. His dream is to open a nightclub in Los Angeles that celebrates the free-form jazz he loves. The plot itself is the rudimentary girl-meets-boy-and-loses-him-and-will-she-regain-him story that has fuelled the genre from its inception. The tension in the narrative arises from Chazelle keeping us on edge as to whether their respective dreams will be fulfilled and whether they will indeed get together. It is our awareness of Chazelle’s cinematic literacy that keeps us on our toes.
In the end, however, Chazelle’s irresolution about exactly what kind of film he wants La La Land to be is dissatisfying. Stone has a winning persona and there are lovely moments that capture the blackly comic ordeal that Hollywood forces on its jobbing actors. But Mia’s story is fantastical and cliché-ridden, her aspirations never rising above the stereotypical. We don’t feel her obsession for acting nor for writing, and that lack of urgency diminishes her role. La La Land begins with an accomplished song-and-dance sequence on an LA freeway, but once Mia’s story begins it feels limp, as if there will be nothing on offer apart from the self-conscious cinephile referencing. Gosling’s appearance is a necessary jolt for the audience: he gives the film urgency. That in part is due to his staying true to the unrelenting fixation of Sebastian’s dreams. It is also because it is clear that for Chazelle, as was evident in his previous film, Whiplash, jazz is his true musical love. Hurwitz’s music is lulling but instantly forgettable and there is none of the heat and dizzying anarchic inspiration that makes jazz so threatening and initially so unwelcoming for many of us. Chazelle is clearly aware of this and has Sebastian educate Mia on the form. But we are never privy to a moment where it is clear that Mia gets it, whether through the score or through her dancing or singing. She remains an outsider to jazz throughout the film, and unfortunately that is true for the audience as well.
It is clear that La La Land is a labour of love for Chazelle, and the wait between good musicals being such a long one, I would encourage anyone who loves the genre to see it. But the film’s disappointment is that it tries to walk a fine line between tradition and modernism, light opera and jazz, fantasy and realism. That isn’t a line, it’s a wall, and one that Demy and Fosse tore down a generation or more ago. Chazelle must know this but I can only guess the temptation to indulge in a big Hollywood musical proved too great. Every frame of this film is indebted to his the genre. But if individual set pieces are indeed dazzling – a lovely pas de deux against the Los Angeles skyline, the breathless summation of the alternative ending that is the film’s coda – La La Land ultimately feels bloated by its references, by the mad rush to imitate all Chazelle’s inspirations.
The irony is, of course, that Chazelle has already made a great modern musical in Whiplash. That was a film scored to jazz: in its tautness; in its return again and again, expanding with each return, to the theme of the hunger and drive that fuels an artist. There was no dancing in Whiplash but watching the lead character play his drums, to the point his fingers bled, was as exhilarating as watching Astaire or Charisse dance. The film was clearly Chazelle’s own but I couldn’t help sensing the spirit of Fosse animating it. It was both in the sustained tension between theatricality and cinematic expression that is also pivotal to Fosse’s work and in the now almost heretical idea that underpinned that film and also All That Jazz: that artistry is inherently undemocratic. Whiplash was thrilling, even in its harshness, and it is exhilaration that La La Land so pointedly lacks. A musical is nothing without those moments of exhilaration. Even the most pedestrian of the Vougiouklaki musicals gave me a sense of that.