Monday, 20 March 2017

10 Movies That La La Land Isn't

I realise I'm late to the party, but I finally got around to seeing La La Land, in the cinema just before it makes its way to the small screen, and I have to say it suffered from the overhype. No film could live up to the expectations that get built up when a movie has broken the record for Oscar nominations, and La La Land probably breaks a new record for the number of people it's disappointed as a result. It's not that it wasn't enjoyable. But it wasn't "all that". Here, in passing, are ten movies it wasn't.

LA Story
As well as being the second best movie about a TV weatherman (just beaten by Groundhog Day), Steve Martin's LA Story (1991) is probably the best and most honest love story to the city of Los Angeles. Coming with the same intentions as Damien Chazelle, to romanticise LA, not by comparison to other more obviously romantic cities, but by playing up its distinct qualities, from its freeways to its fads, its shallowness to the landmarks on its hills, Steve Martin does it beautifully. Remaining funny throughout, though Martin was just on the cusp of moving from cinema's funniest man to its sentimentalistist, he pulls off a truly romantic paean to the city of stars.

Sunset Boulevard
For a more bittersweet Hollywood romance, Billy Wilder's tale of self-delusion and shattered dreams is the winner. Made in 1950, when Hollywood was, for the first time, coming to realise the depths of its disconnection from the real world, and its first generation of superstars were fading into obscurity while the latest generation of hopefuls tried to make it, Sunset Boulevard conjures up a realistic world of backlots and mansions, peopled by strivers and dreamers, hopefuls and the hopeless. La La Land echoes much of Boulevard's look and feel, down to its intense leading man & the compromises he makes, without feeling it takes you as far under the skin of this strange city.

Rebel Without A Cause
La La Land, rather oddly, homages Rebel Without A Cause directly, showing a clip from the film then restaging it, taking our couple to the Griffith Observatory, in the footsteps of James Dean and Natalie Wood. As a film to have yourself compared with, it is a very dangerous choice. Nicholas Ray's 1955 film portrayed a new generation of youngsters, the booming post-war Beat kids who were coming to terms with new freedoms and asking new questions about the world and themselves. And it did so using brand new acting techniques, with Dean and Sal Mineo fresh from the Ilya Kazan school of method acting. To contrast this introspective but adventurous generation with the pair of Millennials in La La Land is to throw into stark relief the vacuousness at the heart of the latter's story.
     Rebel's angst-ridden teens have deep psychological problems, reflecting realities in society at large, and highlighting the difficulties between their generation and their parents. La La Land's duo's biggest concerns are that they keep failing auditions and that jazz isn't as popular it used to be.
     The Griffith Observatory is the sight of the final fatal shootout in Rebel - a scene which is even referenced in La La Land: "I got the bullets - look". To remind the viewer of this, then use the venue for a dreamy dance sequence could almost be satirical, but comes across as just puzzling. Heaven forfend we're being asked to compare Ryan Reynolds with James Dean.

Any Fred Astaire film
In this article Arlene Phillips compares Gosling favourably to Astaire, noting "he’s obviously studied Astaire and he does a perfectly good imitation of what style is about". And the dancing of Mia and Seb was supposed to be naive and gauche, so perhaps it's unfair to point out that Gosling & Stone are no Astaire & Rogers. But I'm just saying, those two do stand out as being the only non-dancers in a dance-ful movie. Not bad choreography, I'll give it that. But.

Jean Luc Godard's 1967 nouvelle vague movie has the most famous traffic jam tracking shot in film history. Seven minutes long, it pans past a mile of cars in a jam, their various inhabitants all doing something of interest, from picnicking in the road to carrying lions in the back, until (spoiler alert) we whizz past the grisly car crash that caused the queue. This is homaged in the opening shot of La La Land. Unless they're homaging the traffic jam scene from Fellini's 8-and-a-half (1964), though that was done better in REM's Everybody Hurts video. Or are they doing Falling Down with Michael Douglas?

Whoever Chazelle is homaging with the opening song and dance number, it certainly is impressive. But for a recent movie musical that not only uses our central character well & moves the story on, with a pivotal lyric & a cracking tune, but also spoofs the entire genre of musical routines, few can beat Amy Adams performing That's How You Know in Disney's Enchanted (2007). Most of the tropes in Another Day Of Sun can be found here, though they get full marks for making it look like one take. Apparently Damien Chazelle wanted the road to reference the Yellow Brick Road in Wizard Of Oz. Really Damien, you're asking to be compared to a lot of movies that maybe you shouldn't.

The Player
If it's impressively long tracking shots and a satire of contemporary Hollywood you want, you're looking for Robert Altman's The Player (1992). Opening with a 7 and a half minute tracking shot, that manages to introduce every plot & sub plot of the movie while cramming in a dozen top gags at the expense of the LA movie world, it goes on to lampoon the industry while also demonstrating some exemplary film making. Never once descending to homage, Altman continues the realism, improv & ensemble casting he's utilised in his previous works, this time with a good plot too.

(A very good piece on the 12 Best Long Takes In Film History, here from CineFix)

Not that I'm obsessing over the one scene where they dance on car roofs, but really Fame owns that. Fame (1980) also remains the best evocation on film of the struggles of wannabes in the acting business. Mixing a dirty-looking realism with a flashy cinematography he'd brought from British advertising that was streets ahead of his American contemporaries, Alan Parker makes the lives and problems of his young leads truly believable. Fame is also excellently cast, entirely with unfamiliar faces, all of whom can out-dance the La La Land leads. And you end up knowing that these characters, despite being obviously more talented than the couple in La La Land, will most likely never achieve the Fame in the movie's title. Also, unlike LLL, these self-obsessed brats are shown to care more about other people than they do themselves. How different the 1970s must have been.

Damien Chazelle's previous feature film was "the drumming one", whose title we can never remember. I still have to wrack my brain to remember why it was called Whiplash (I won't spoil it for you). At its heart was jazz music, as with the Seb character in LLL, and the protaganist's struggle to succeed. The big difference with Whiplash is that the struggle is palpable, the enemy is terrifying and real, and our hero exudes literal blood, sweat and tears to prove himself. The story also twists and turns, tightening the knot and cranking up the drama. And is there a happy ending in Whiplash? Even after you've watched it, you're not entirely sure. But if you wanted a movie that was, in so many ways, the diametric opposite of La La Land in terms of drama, originality, and overall impressiveness, you don't have to go far. You don't even have to go to a different director.

Singing In The Rain
The movie that La La Land is most often compared to, and one that it homages directly, is the one with which it fails the biggest comparison. Both are positive, optimistic, romantic musical comedies, with song and dance routines, taking a satirical look behind the scenes at Hollywood and movie making. The one made 65 years ago is set 90 years ago and is as stunning, entertaining and relevant today as it was then. The one made a year ago is already starting to look a bit meh.
La La Land also (spoiler alert) takes the ending of An American In Paris and redoes it. It would seem unkind to point out it had already been done, but really it had.

I apologise if I've been overly harsh in rubbishing a film that probably didn't have pretensions to be as over-examined as it's being, and quite likely feels embarrassed to have been so feted in awards season as it ended up being. Had I discovered it as a little indie film on Netflix I'd no doubt be raving about it as a novel little gem and a work of overlooked genius. Sadly I came to it with expectations the like of which you probably only have if you're a twenty-something wannabe actor arriving in LA for the first time. And we all know how that ends up.

Comic Art Masterclasses coming up in 2017:

2017 TOUR
Feb 15 - Buxton Pavilion Arts Centre Studio 
Feb 17 & 18 6.50pm - Kayal, Leicester Comedy Fest
March 9 - Aberystwyth Arts Centre
March 15 & 16 - Dram! Glasgow Com Fest
March 23 - The Bill Murray, London
Apr 1 - Rotherham Comedy Festival
Apr 6 - Victoria Theatre Halifax
Apr 8 - Rondo Bath
Apr 13 - Hexham Queen's Hall
Apr 22 - Swindon Arts
Apr 27 - Stroud Subscription Rooms
Apr 28 - Merlin Theatre Frome
Apr 29 - Perth Concert Hall
May 1 - Chiddingstone Castle Kent 
May 5 - Artrix Bromsgrove
May 6 - Stafford Gatehouse
May 13 (4.30pm) & May 14 (5.30pm) Komedia Brighton
May 19 - Carriageworks Leeds
May 26 - Aberdeen May Fest
June 2 - Eden Ct Inverness
June 15 - Crescent Arts, Belfast
June 17 - Dalkey Festival, Dublin
June 23 - Hertford Comedy Festival
June 24 - Ludlow Fringe
August 15 - 17 Camden Fringe

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