Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, dancing away over the City of Angels
Today’s blog concerns the musical comedy mish-mash that is La La Land. No, I didn’t hate it. But it sure frustrated the hell out of me.
As a film student, I learned a cinematic term called mise-en-scene. Mise-en-scene refers to the holistic approach regarding a specific film genre (camera, actors, sets, costumes, lighting, dialog, etc.) According to Wikipedia, “The mise-en-scène, along with the cinematography and editing of a film, influences the verisimilitude or believability of a film in the eyes of its viewers.”
Here are some conventions pertaining to musical comedy that any director should address concerning mise-en-scene.
- Music. First and foremost, music and dance sustains everything. If the music is lousy and/or insufficient, all else fails.
- Suspension of disbelief. The director of a musical must make the audience believe that at any point in time, actors and actresses will spontaneously break out in song and dance.
- Stylization. In order to sustain suspension of disbelief, the director needs to stylize cinematography, lighting, dialog, sets, etc. so that the audience from the outset is conditioned to a surreal landscape where anything can happen.
- The principal characters in a musical should be empathetic.
- The actors portraying the principal characters should at least be competent at singing and dancing.
So here’s where I had a problem with this show:
- Music. Not nearly enough of it. There are long stretches without music where we are forced to tolerate interminable conversations between the two principal characters, played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. The best musical performance in this film comes from John Legend, a wonderful singer who plays a character meant to exemplify what went wrong with jazz. He gets five minutes onscreen, and during the short period of time that he sings, the film comes alive. If this is life without jazz, give me more!
- Stylization. Much of this film was shot using a naturalistic approach in terms of lighting, cinematography, acting and dialog. In other words, we see a lot of dreary bachelor pads and crummy L.A. exteriors. We hear Gosling and Stone engaged in what appears to be improvised, Method-acting dialog that would be more appropriate for a romantic dramedy. Certainly not appropriate for a musical. The result is a dramedy impersonating a musical, with a few stylized dance/fantasy segments here and there.
- The principal characters in a musical should be empathetic. The plot of La La Land concerns a frustrated L.A.-based jazz musician who wants to remain true to his craft, and an aspiring actress who can’t get anywhere in the Hollywood industry. The jazz musician (Gosling) is taciturn and sullen. The actress (Stone) is whiny, badly coifed, and without charm. No wonder she can’t land a gig!
- The actors portraying the principal characters should at least be competent at singing and dancing. Gosling and Stone are barely competent and no more than that. Meanwhile, Legend blows everyone else away.
So why am I frustrated and not merely offended by this film? Because there are some inspired moments. For example, when Stone’s character meets Gosling’s jazz musician in a nightclub, he is spotlighted and showcased in a way that makes us root for him. And there’s an impressionistic montage at the end of the picture that addresses the bittersweet relationship between Gosling and Stone. It is touching, and it includes a lovely reference to the ballet sequence from 1951’s An American In Paris.
I sure wish there had been more of the good stuff, and less of what I described at length in this blog.
Pluses: John Legend, final musical sequence.
Minus: Too much talking, not enough good music. Principal players not empathetic. Awkward melding of musical and dramedy genres.
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend.
Director: Damien Chazelle.
Rating: PG-13 (for some language)
Length: 128 minutes
“Mise-en-scene.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 12 October 2016. Web. 18 February 2017.