Jazz bores. We’ve all met one. That painfully pleased-with-himself bloke (it’s always a bloke) who just loves to show off the depth of his knowledge, droning on about how jazz is the rhythmic pulse of the American people and throwing around words like ‘syncopation’ and ‘cadence’ like he’s just swallowed a musical dictionary. Now imagine you went to the pictures to catch a classic Hollywood musical – ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, say. And just as you're getting swept up in it, you realise that the guy sitting next to you is one of those jazz bores. And he starts interrupting the film every 15 minutes, facting you over the head with some little nugget about Dizzy Gillespie’s singular way with a horn.
Congratulations – you’ve just invented ‘La La Land’. Nice.
On the surface, it should be a dream: a swoonsome old-fashioned musical romance about two lost souls coming together. And indeed, the film has scored a fistful of amazing reviews (including from Time Out), and seems set to pick up the Best Picture Oscar.
The problem is that 31-year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle is one of those very same jazz bores (his last film ‘Whiplash’ had a strong whiff of it too). He’s a talented guy, and there’s a lot in ‘La La Land’ to admire – the choreography is great, the chemistry between stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone fizzles and there are a handful of swoonsome magic moments. But every time the film threatens to become truly transcendent, Gos’s character muscles in with yet another smug, mansplaining soliloquy that proves just how deep and meaningful his jazz-love is. It’s remarkable that Emma Stone gets a word in edgeways.
‘La La Land’ isn't even that convincing as a musical. There are two catchy tunes and a fair bit of filler, and in the downbeat second half the tunes dry up almost entirely (any movie musical worth its salt can surely find a way to make a song 'n' dance out of even the most dour circumstances). The cultural appropriation aspect is also a worry, but journalist Ashley Clark summarised the whole thing in this perfect tweet starring Kenny G and Miles Davis, so I don’t have to:
‘La La Land’ is far from a bad movie – there are scenes that’ll steal your heart. But to talk about it as a Best Picture winner feels slightly absurd: it’s a good romcom, and those aren’t exactly a rare commodity. Ultimately, it just feels like a massive missed opportunity. If Chazelle could have set aside his own jazz-bore tendencies, he might’ve made a movie worth the hype.