I want to start this piece (which does contain spoilers), by stating my credentials: despite my rock-hard, toffee-glazed exterior, I like musicals. Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, The Little Shop of Horrors, Moulin Rouge, Chicago, The Young Girls of Rochefort, The Nightmare Before Christmas and every goddamn Muppet film except for the one I haven’t seen because it stars Ricky Gervais. I think most TV shows would benefit at least one musical episode, like Buffy’s Once More With Feeling, or the whole of Doctor Horrible, or the musical episode of Lexx, or the karaoke bit in Sense8, or the entirety of the ruthlessly inventive My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, or Mayhem of the Music Meister! from Batman: The Brave and the Bold. I like musicals so much I sometimes regret I wasn’t born homosexual, but, we all have to play the hand we’re dealt, and my hand is, tragically, straight.
So in theory, I should have liked La La Land a lot more than I did. It starts strong, with a tremendous Jacques Demy-style opening number, Another Day of Sun, people all over the place singing and dancing and occasionally beeping their horns. It’s spectacular, not just as a piece of music or a piece of film but as a statement of intent for what’s to come, and the momentum keeps up with Someone in the Crowd, another great song with some exciting camerawork and lovely dresses. The romance between Mia and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian is cute and funny.
But, slowly, the film just lost me. I got bored, I checked my watch, and the romance turns into the stuff of superficial romcoms. The heights of the opening number are never reached again, the film returning instead to variations on City of Stars that wear thin as the story sinks into an insipid relationship drama. For almost the whole second half of the film it’s barely a musical at all as Mia and Sebastian’s relationship flounders under mundane stresses, and without any big numbers to carry me along I realised I’d never been all that invested in them in the first place, not as a couple and not as individuals.
Mia’s story — the gripping journey of a young, beautiful, struggling actress who ends up a young, beautiful, successful actress — is bland and formulaic, but she at least seems like she might be fun to hang out with when she’s not being obnoxiously affectionate with her boyfriend in public. Sebastian though, with his ideological snobbery about how jazz ought to be, is a pub bore. He patronisingly dictates his musical theories to Mia, telling her how her opinions on jazz were wrong, actually, insisting that traditional jazz needs to be ‘saved’ from contemporary bands, and that he was the one to save it. By the end of the film he’s not really learnt anything; his views are never seriously challenged. The only modern jazz in the film is presented for mockery and disdain and theatrical looks of horror, and Sebastian’s successful traditional jazz club at the end only vindicates his rigid stance.
Ironically the film’s big closing number, another spectacular piece that sees Sebastian imagine how great his relationship with Mia could have been, had things been different, made me imagine how much I could have loved the film had it not fundamentally just been about a pair of dull hipsters.
I don’t want to belittle that ending; it’s a genuinely brilliant moment and I’m sure it must have been a real punch in the gut for anyone still emotionally engaged with things. But for me…I really wanted to fall in love with La La Land, and for a brief, giddy moment, I was. But it wasn’t to be.