‘Gotta dance,’ Gene Kelly shouts towards the end of a famous Hollywood movie. He’s right, he doesn’t have any option, he’s in a musical, and he’s been dancing (and singing) since the film started. But that’s not what the words mean for his character. They mean that dancing is his dream and his destiny, he will be nobody if he doesn’t dance. All musicals, on stage and screen, implicitly or explicitly play with some version of this idea: you know who you are when you’re singing in the rain; you know you’re in love when it’s swing time, when the right person says: ‘Shall we dance?’ Some musicals, especially stage musicals, don’t play with the idea very hard, and rest their case on the commercial fact: the characters break into song and dance because that’s what the audience paid to see. Last year American Psycho did play hard as a stage musical, and actually thought about what it was doing, but the irony got out of hand, and serial murder turned into a set of pounding glitzy chorus numbers. The show did quite well in London, but closed after 81 performances in New York.
The opening of Damien Chazelle’s movie La La Land offers a brilliant riff on the current state of both meanings of ‘gotta’. It’s a sunny day in Los Angeles, the traffic is stuck on a freeway, nothing is moving except the camera, which tracks along a line of cars, the soundtrack picking up different music from each car’s radio. It’s a bizarre, disorganised symphony, and would feel like a documentary if the colours weren’t so bright. Then the camera pauses and the music gets louder: one car, one song. This is where the plot is going to begin, we think. Now we zoom in on the character and learn what she’s worried about. Except that we don’t. The character gets out of her car and starts to dance. The music becomes louder still, and the dance movement is infectious. Everybody joins in, bouncing off the tops and bonnets of the cars, slithering in between them. It’s all joy and energy and musical racket, a big number. If this was New York we could call it The West Side Highway Story. The effect is enhanced by the fact that this scene takes place only on one part of the freeway. Over the side wall, down below, we can see the rest of the day’s traffic going about its business: not stuck, but not singing and dancing either.
When we say we have to do something, do we mean we can’t help doing it or just that we want to? Is it an urgent way of saying what we wish for, or is it just a spoilt or petulant announcement? Both La La Land and Chazelle’s earlier film Whiplash (2014) have these questions at their heart, and more especially the part that they play in American mythologies of success. In Whiplash a young musician at a top (imaginary) New York conservatory wants to be the best drummer in the world, to be a legend or nothing. He despises all other forms of life, and finds his match in his ferocious teacher, played with extraordinary relish by J.K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for the part. Simmons’s theory is that only abuse can make an artist great. He repeatedly cites the claim that Charlie Parker became Charlie Parker only because the drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him and almost took his head off. True to the theory, Simmons hits and humiliates his students constantly until one day our boy secretly denounces him and Simmons loses his job. The trouble is that our boy was in agreement with Simmons all along. He didn’t like the treatment but he did believe in it, and the end of the film proves him right. Humiliated one more time by Simmons in a new context, he plays better than he has ever done before, and brings down the house, in this case Carnegie Hall.
In La La Land the plot does begin as we expected it would, only a little late, delayed by the genre. We zoom in on a stationary car and its driver Mia (Emma Stone), who is practising her lines for a movie audition. She hasn’t noticed that the traffic is moving again and is rudely hooted at by Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who himself is playing and replaying a jazz piano sequence on a tape in his car. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship, though Mia and Sebastian don’t know that yet. In fact they don’t even know it when they sing and dance one of their best numbers, looking down on a whole valley filled with the glittering lights of Los Angeles. ‘What a waste,’ they say, after doing a passable imitation of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers warming up, ‘of a lovely night.’
They do get together though and here is where the Whiplash theme returns. The film has none of the earlier work’s eager sado-masochism, but it is all about exclusive ambition. Sebastian wants to be a jazz pianist and to open a jazz club. He wants to save jazz, which he says is dying. Mia wants to be a writer as well as an actress. She’s more passive than he is – a little old-style stereotyping here – so he needs to awaken her sterner ambitions. He’s not as realistic as she is, so she can teach him to make compromises. In an elegant if despairing turn, almost outrageous for a musical, each succeeds in changing the other so they can’t live happily ever after. He joins a terrible glittery pop band, and she gets a part in a film where she is also a writer. We see her, five years on, ordering a drink in the coffee shop where she used to work, receiving the celebrity treatment she used only to watch. She is married now, and has a small daughter. We don’t know, for a while, what has happened to Sebastian. The question we are asking, given this miserable triumph, is where the grand final musical number is going to come from, the spectacular celebration of the time and place where we gotta dance.
The answer is amazing. Mia and her husband go out for dinner and, returning to the car, hear the sounds of music coming from a club. They decide to drop in for a moment. The club is of course Sebastian’s – he has made the money on the road and he too has achieved his dream. She got lucky because she believed in his belief in her, and he won out because he exchanged his lonely arrogance for sheer, if glamorous plod. But where is the big number in this?
In the dimly lit club, the two stare at each other. Sebastian plays a note or two on the piano, and we take off into a flashback which is also a fantasy, a version of the last five years where everything that happened to Mia – her success in film, her marriage, her motherhood – happened with Sebastian; there was no frame of her life without him. Some viewers have thought this is Sebastian’s fantasy. It feels more like Mia’s to me, but it ought to belong to both. It’s what would have happened in a world where success and devotion to another person were not at odds with each other, and therefore must happen in the mind of any feeling person who has understood and accepted the other world. It’s like singing and dancing mentally during a traffic jam. Mia smiles at Sebastian across the room; Sebastian barely smiles back. Nothing is going to change. This is after all what they wanted, whether they like it or not.
The film’s music, by Justin Hurwitz, is a strange mixture. There is some good hard jazz in the club scenes, and lots of breakdancing bounce in the opening sequence. But the tunes for the romantic scenes are pretty sloppy, even when the lyrics are trying to be brittle, and most surprising of all, when Sebastian gets to play his own stuff on the piano it doesn’t sound like Thelonious Monk or McCoy Tyner, or even the more classically inclined Keith Jarrett. It sounds like cocktail time at the Ritz, a kind of muzak – as if it’s all right for the movie audience to hear verbal defences of jazz but they shouldn’t have too much of the actual thing. But then one of Mia’s songs is different again. It is ostensibly a beautiful, if conventional, celebration of the apparent losers who manage to win, and Stone sings it with what is supposed to be fragile courage. But it comes across, as I’m sure she and the director wanted it to, as a sort of hymn of bafflement. The old romantically licensed ambition, the impossible dream of Man of La Mancha, has turned into a regret that can’t openly be permitted but can’t be got rid of either. The song is called ‘The Fools Who Dream’, but we are likely to hear ‘What Have We Done to Ourselves?’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.