La La Land has a narrow path to walk in order to succeed. The lavish Hollywood musical seems to flourish in the presumed ‘simpler times’ of the past, before irony, cynicism and disillusionment were invented in the mid-1960s. Realism is anathema to a world in which groups of people burst spontaneously into elaborate, choreographed song-and-dance routines. Despite this, director Damien Chazelle has been largely successful. While the balance between music and narrative is lost for some time in the third act, it returns in spectacular fashion in the closing scenes. The final show-stopper is a gorgeous punch to the heart, an emotional climax earned by the affection that the film has built over the journey of the two romantic leads.
The musical sequences of La La Land run the gamut. The opening number, “Another Day of Sun” sees a rush hour tail-back become a carnival, as uniformly attractive and talented people (not because it’s a movie, but because this is California) frolic along the freeway. This section apes a single take, hiding cuts in quick turns, in order to maintain the illusion that this introduction to perpetually sunny Los Angeles is one long, lyrical greeting. Such trickery is nowhere to be found in “A Lovely Night”, a duet between Emma Stone’s Mia and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian on a fake hilltop overlooking the city’s night-time skyline. As the sparks of attraction between the two begin to ignite, expressed mainly through playful snark, the camera pans but does not cut nor break the fourth wall, in a convincing recreation of an Astaire and Rogers-style routine. Arguably the film’s simplest and most intimate scene pares down the camera work even more. The audition of Mia’s life has her standing before the first attentive interviewers she has encountered, and her improvised words become a solo, a stirring but knowing paean to idealism called “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”. As the lights turn low, the camera slowly zooms towards her face, leaving only her voice and her expression to carry the scene. The tears in her eyes almost seem a cue to the audience; if you are not already welling up, now is the time.
Stone and Gosling make for an engaging couple, without ever becoming too cute. Their tightrope to walk is to play a pair who work well together and clearly care for one another, while also embodying the very real obstacles to their finding ultimate happiness. Initially this threatens to devolve into parody as the two repeatedly frustrate their own meets-cute through distraction or bad temper. But it is deeper than this. Mia is forward-looking, and while she professes a love for Hollywood’s Golden Age, is firmly focused on her own future as an actress. Conversely, Sebastian is obsessed with the preservation of the past, the salvation of his beloved jazz from consignment to history’s dustbin. His ambitions are not hinged upon his own success as an artist, but rather upon the art-form that he treasures, and when he tries to emulate Mia’s perspective, he is desperately unhappy, almost resentful. This difference between the two characters is the main thing that stands between them and their happy ending.
The thing that links La La Land to Chazelle’s previous film Whiplash, besides the near-religious reverence for jazz, is the idea that ambition and success are enemies of love. In the former case the barrier is geographical – Mia’s nascent acting career takes her to Paris, while Sebastian’s life in a band becomes an interminable world tour. In the latter, Miles Teller’s Andrew consciously sabotages his only friendly relationship, and threatens to alienate his family, in pursuit of his desire to be a great jazz drummer. Everything in his life is subservient to his drumming, even his own personal safety. His most significant relationship, with J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher, is predicated entirely upon his performance, and even that connection is characterised more by loathing than any fraternity.
This adversarial dynamic between teacher and student is the main attraction of Whiplash. In spite of the asymmetry in power between them, the contest is fairly even and is propelled by the passion and arrogance of both men. The sheer intensity of their interaction is incredibly affecting, causing palpable tension and anxiety in the audience. We may not care about drumming quite as much as Andrew does (certainly not enough to shed blood for it), but by the end it’s impossible not to care considerably more than we did at the outset. Teller does well in matching the sheer ferocity of Simmons, whose performance must rate as one of the most formidable music tutors ever committed to film. This is not the tale of a gentle, artistic soul suffering at the hands of a callous and impossible-to-please mentor. Both leads are despicable in their way, whether spitting painful confided secrets as furious insults, or delivering a thunderous and extremely public musical middle finger.
While both of these films are about music and musicians, the subject is perhaps more incidental to Whiplash. Potentially the same story could be told if Andrew were an abrasive star athlete, and Fletcher his unusually intense coach. But music, and particularly drumming, offer several advantages over that topic that serve to enhance the film’s impact. The precision of music allows for an immediacy in the conflict between student and teacher, in contrast to the more improvisational and spontaneous nature of sport. Rather than being forced to wait for a post-game haranguing from Fletcher, the criticism is instant as an imperfect rendition is brought to a halt by a single raised fist. This creates a greater sense of tension and frustration, as failure comes thick and fast and repeatedly. The decision to make the lead character a drummer permits the use of that instrument’s unique qualities to great effect. Beyond music, drums have been used for millennia as a religious or martial tool, whether to inspire and bewitch allies or to strike terror into adversaries. The effect of rhythmic, booming percussion can affect us on an almost primal level. This is amply demonstrated in Whiplash; one of the movie’s most intense scenes involves simple, repetitive drumming, brought up to a blistering pace and maintained for an almost unbearably long time. Only when it stops can you separate the hammering drumbeat from your own racing heart, and remember to breathe once more.
These two films, in spite of some common elements, are very different and show the versatility of Chazelle as a filmmaker. He can offer whimsy and cynicism, joy and spite, bittersweet closure and hopeful ambiguity. La La Land is a confident and refreshing modern take on a genre supposed dead. Whiplash is a deeply compelling story of obsession that rests more on two outstanding performances than complexities of plot. And both are essential viewing, even if, like so many in our culturally anaemic 21st Century world, you don’t really like jazz.
La La Land
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling and John Legend
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons and Paul Reiser