Film Mar­cus Berk­mann


I have to ad­mit I feel slightly be­fud­dled by peo­ple’s re­ac­tions to La La Land (12A). On one side are the evan­ge­lists, who adored ev­ery mo­ment of this lav­ish homage to Hol­ly­wood mu­si­cals of the long-dis­tant past. This group in­cludes all crit­ics and not a few of my friends. On the other side, grunt­ing and snarling, is a small group of fu­ri­ous re­fuseniks, who com­plain that nei­ther Ryan Gosling nor Emma Stone can sing or dance, which is true, sort of. But does it mat­ter, I ask? Steam pours out of these peo­ple’s ears, as they stomp off into the night, feel­ing conned by the film and the ex­tra­or­di­nary praise it has re­ceived.

And me? I’m some­where in the mid­dle. I liked it, al­most as much as Damien Chazelle’s pre­vi­ous film,

Whiplash, the one about mad jazz drum­ming that ex­hausted us all a cou­ple of years ago. But I also found it slight and a touch schematic. La La Land is one of those films that’s all on the screen: you en­joy it while you’re there and never give it a mo­ment’s thought there­after. Maybe that’s the aim of a film that as­pires only to be pure en­ter­tain­ment. But per­haps the una­nim­ity of crit­i­cal ap­pro­ba­tion led me to ex­pect a lit­tle more.

Ryan Gosling, never en­tirely shaven but never quite bearded, plays a jazz pi­anist who wants to open his own club. Is there any other type? I won­dered through­out whether it was re­ally him play­ing all those amaz­ing so­los, or whether it was all done with CGI. (Nei­ther, it turns out. An­other pi­anist played them, and Gosling then stud­ied for six weeks to re­pro­duce his play­ing, hav­ing never played pi­ano be­fore. Stag­ger­ing, re­ally.) Emma Stone, her eyes so wide you keep ex­pect­ing them to drop out, is the as­pir­ing ac­tress who keeps go­ing to au­di­tions and be­ing shown the door. (These are the fun­ni­est mo­ments in the film.) They meet in a club where Gosling is hired to play ‘Jin­gle Bells’, but keeps play­ing Keith Jar­rett-style im­pro­vi­sa­tions in­stead.

As is re­quired by cin­e­matic law, they keep bump­ing into each other and flir­ta­tion turns pretty swiftly to love. Soon they are liv­ing to­gether and even­tu­ally they are ar­gu­ing hor­ri­bly. It’s an odd bal­ance but Chazelle keeps it all afloat, just about.

I think his in­ten­tion was to mix the fan­tasy and glitz of old Hol­ly­wood films with the kitchen-sink re­al­ity of nor­mal life, but in Hol­ly­wood, is there such a thing as nor­mal life? As so often, the film even­tu­ally comes down to a sin­gle ques­tion: will they stay to­gether or won’t they? Chazelle’s so­lu­tion is in­ge­nious but not ter­ri­bly sat­is­fy­ing. A bit like the whole film re­ally. The singing is pass­able, un­less you re­ally love mu­si­cals and then it’s a dis­grace. To be fair, ev­ery song was shot in real time with­out over­dub­bing and there are only a few of them. (The paucity of the songs led my daugh­ter, aged seven­teen and very much in the re­fusenik camp, to de­scribe the film as ‘a mu­si­cal for peo­ple who don’t like mu­si­cals’.)

But the danc­ing is glo­ri­ous. Not nec­es­sar­ily tech­ni­cally, but each dance se­quence, care­fully chore­ographed to con­ceal the ac­tors’ lim­i­ta­tions, is a slice of deliri­ous fan­tasy that will warm the cock­les of your heart.

It took me a while to re­alise that there is no sex in the film – or any­thing close to it. In­stead there’s danc­ing, as there used to be in Hol­ly­wood mu­si­cals. I’d watch those scenes again with the great­est plea­sure, but best film of the year? No, not even close.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling – not great dancers but still glo­ri­ous

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