Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. USA, 2016. Summit Entertainment, Black Label Media, TIK Films, Impostor Pictures, Gilbert Films, Marc Platt Productions. Screenplay by Damien Chazelle. Cinematography by Linus Sandgren. Produced by Fred Berger, Gary Gilbert, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt. Music by Justin Hurwitz. Production Design by David Wasco. Costume Design by Mary Zophres. Film Editing by Tom Cross. Academy Awards 2016. Golden Globe Awards 2016. Toronto International Film Festival 2016.
Sunny days in L.A. no matter what the season, and at the centre of the storm of young hopefuls trying to make their mark in the fame game are an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) working as a barista and a jazz enthusiast (Ryan Gosling) playing crummy night clubs while dreaming of opening a place of his own. Circumstances bring these two together and they fall in love, perform a few dance numbers and then have their compatibility put to the test when success comes knocking at their doors. Beautifully shot using colourful widescreen vistas emulating Jean Negulesco comedies of the fifties and featuring characters who always come across as real people, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his compelling Whiplash suffers from an incredible amount of confusion in tonal inspiration. The film openly references a lot of movies that aren’t musicals (How To Marry A Millionaire, Rebel Without A Cause, neither of which have any relevance to this story) and is not compelling enough in its sincerity to make up for the lack of the kind of irony that Todd Haynes would bring to this kind of genre tribute: making a black man a main character as a way to point out the prevalence of whiteness in fifties melodramas in Far From Heaven might be effort than Chazelle means to go for here, but if he’s not going to, for instance, criticize the heteronormative nature of old musicals by queering the narrative he could at least create a heterosexual romance that has high stakes. Actually, he could at least create one that makes sense: Gosling and Stone break up at the slightest trouble and their inability to be together is never convincing, more like a weak excuse for an Umbrellas of Cherbourg ending. The mostly forgettable songs feature shallow lip-synching, passable dancing and adequate but not deeply impressive piano playing, the whole thing seeming determined to not break a bead of sweat. This is a genre that, in its heyday, had stars like Astaire and Rogers doing up to ninety takes to make it look easy, so having such minimal elbow grease from the director who made a film that questioned just how much suffering is needed to make great musical art is surprising. You can’t take this film seriously as a musical because it doesn’t take itself seriously as one, showing a profound lack of understanding and certainly little respect for the genre while also contributing to the unintelligent absence of irony in a plot that doesn’t seem to be aware that we already know these two will fall in love from the minute they meet. The film works best when it focuses on comedy (Gosling’s timing remains perfect) or drama (Stone is exceptional at presenting her character’s inner conflicts) since that seems to be where Chazelle’s heart is at; songs and dances are there for feelings of hope and promise but when life gets serious and these two are having relationship issues, there’s not a tune to be found. That said, Chazelle at least shoots and edits the dance numbers in the style of films of the past, long takes and long shots to include both face and feet, none of the rapid fire editing to hide dance doubles that is a common practice in recent films. This film is not a waste of time, it’s quite pleasant to sit through and beautiful to look at, but it is incredible how much effort is put into something that means to be enjoyable fluff but is actually wholly unimportant.