As a fan of the classic movie musical, I looked forward to Damien Chezelle’s La La Land, the latest attempt to reinvigorate the American movie musical.
The film shares many of the same concerns as Chazelle’s previous effort, the acclaimed Whiplash, especially how the all-consuming ambitions and desires of an artist can conflict with other pursuits in life, particularly romance. Jazz pianist/purist Ryan Gosling and actress/barrista Emma Stone are pursuing their dreams in Los Angeles and are very much in love—at least after some awkward (and amusing) meetings, and Stone’s admission that she doesn’t like jazz. Gosling would love to save enough to open his own club, where the performers can keep jazz alive without having to compromise their art; Stone wants to get a part—any part—until an increasingly frustrating series of auditions causes her to use her innate writing talent to create her own opportunities. As for Gosling’s uncompromising jazz pianist, he grudgingly understands that realizing the dream of his own venue means taking on paid work with a musical colleague (an appealing John Legend) whose notions of jazz don’t necessarily coincide with Gosling’s—or Stone’s for that matter (she’s since learned to love jazz).
There is much to enjoy in La La Land: Justin Hurwitz’s music is agreeably buoyant and haunting when the situation demands; Linus Seagren’s lush cinematography showcases the sunny exuberance of Los Angeles that can prove so inviting. Chezelle’s screenplay and direction both harken back to the classic movie musical while incorporating certain indelicate aspects of the modern era (immersion in ubiquitous electronic devices, road rage). Finally there are the very appealing leads. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have an abundance of charm, warmth, vulnerability—not to mention more than a modicum of musical talent that is essential to any musical’s success. Neither possesses a great voice, but they both know how to persuasively put a song across through both their emotive skills and their affecting, untrained voices. While Rosling and Stone would never be mistaken for the next Astaire/Rogers, they have plenty of chemistry which propels them to great heights—literally in the case of an enchanting dance at the Griffith Observatory.
The “dancing on air” at the Griffith reminded me of The Belle of New York (an underrated Fred Astaire/Vera Ellen musical), in which truly being in love gave you the power to walk on air. And there are references in La La Land to other classic musicals, such as Singin’ in the Rain, Broadway Melody of 1940, An American in Paris, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to name a few. My only reservation with the film has to do with how the screenplay resolves the Stone/Gosling relationship; it’s clear what the filmmakers were trying to achieve, but there are some gaps in the writing (and some implausible turns) that prevented me from being “transported” in the end—as some truly great musicals will cause you to feel. So while I generally liked La La Land, it wasn’t the “transcendent” experience that others may have had.
As for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, this stand-alone space opera certainly is bustling with activity, what with the Galactic Empire in full-on evil mode, rebel forces, decimated families, changing locales, shifting allegiances, the development of the Death Star, and a fugitive turned determined young heroine (Felicity Jones) who might have the key to saving the Rebellion—if she can just reach her father, a scientist in the hands of the Empire’s forces. In order for her to do this, she must team with a rebel officer with his own agenda (Diego Luna) and a few warriors who believe in “the Force” (though how well it believes in them remains to be seen). There is also the requisite talkative droid (voiced by Alan Tudyk) who is initially suspicious of the heroine but grows to respect her. There is a good deal of action in Rogue One, generally well-staged, but it was hard to get emotionally invested in either the events or the characters, some of whom emerge for a scene or two, after which you’re supposed to grieve (or rejoice) after the turn of events. There is one character who does make an unlikely, if quite welcome return. I don’t wish to be a “spoiler” (especially if you’re one of the Star Wars fans who are unaware) but this character’s return was a highlight of the movie (and it isn’t a walk-on either).
As I was writing these reviews, the news has been full of stories connected with the passing of both Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds. I am saddened by the loss of Carrie Fisher, who was both a talented actress, but an even more accomplished writer, as her memoirs, screenplays, and uncredited contributions can attest to. When I saw her onstage a few years ago in her one-woman show, she was witty, self-deprecating, heartwarming, irreverent—within seconds of each other. She’ll be missed. But I’m devastated about the loss of Debbie Reynolds. For people of my generation, Debbie Reynolds was probably our first crush; she was beautiful, talented, funny, exuberant, indefatigable, and plain unsinkable. She was wonderful in Singin’ in the Rain, but there were many others: The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Tammy and the Bachelor, The Rat Race, The Pleasure of His Company, Mother, Divorce American Style (good trenchant comedy with Dick Van Dyke). Reynolds was the glue that held How the West Was Won together, and she made a sterling contribution to the horror genre with her sympathetic turn in What’s the Matter with Helen? I haven’t even mentioned her humanitarian work or the efforts she put into preserving our Hollywood heritage. She always seemed to be a class act, the genuine article. Hollywood has lost another legend.