Camp—once the coded language of gays triumphing over dull conventionality—may be over, but La La Land, the new movie musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone and totally lacking in the humor or style that denotes camp, kills the movie-musical genre dead. (“Kill him dead,” Oprah’s threat in The Color Purple, is great camp lingo.)
It’s not the hetero convention of Gosling and Stone as L.A. wannabes Mia and Sebastian (she’s an actress, he’s a pianist) that de-camps La La Land but the sad fact that unpleasant Stone and truculent Gosling both lack charm. (Note to Gosling fans: Your erection does not translate as charmed.) When Mia and Sebastian sing and dance, they’re never melodious or graceful; they’re craven careerists and they hoof like amateurs.
Director Damien Chazelle flaunts his movie-buff’s savvy—using widescreen CinemaScope compositions and paying reference to a mixed-bag of classic films. But just as his hyperactive storytelling never settles into a moment of genuine romantic, erotic attraction or a great song (no great songs here), Chazelle doesn’t show the special affection for the stylized expression of emotion that always made movie-musicals the special delectation of gay viewers. (Think Liza’s “Maybe This Time” in Cabaret.)
Gay composers, directors, and film-lovers, already self-conscious about the gender-basis of courtship conventions and especially interested in subverting or transcending society’s mundane restrictions, came to appreciate movie-musicals as liberating art through a refined sense of camp.
And the best movie-musical creators and performers communicated that refinement—even up to the great era of music videos when Madonna quoted Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (in Material Girl); Michael Jackson quoted West Side Story (in Beat It); Prince quoted Singin’ in the Rain (in Kiss); and Bjork quoted The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (in It’s Oh So Quiet). Chazelle copycats music video yet doesn’t come close. He inadvertently achieved camp whenever his creepy jazz film Whiplash resembled a gay student-teacher S&M romp. But here, his non-camp instinct wastes any possible gay resonance. When Mia and Sebastian go to the movies and watch James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause, the film breaks and burns on the repertory cinema’s screen, revealing Chazelle’s film eunuch nerdiness.
Things get worse at L.A.’s Griffith Observatory (site of Dean and Mineo’s musing on the universe, memorialized in The Smiths’ “Stretch Out and Wait”): Here’s where Mia and Sebastian dance on-air, imitating Goldie Hawn and Woody Allen floating to “I’m Through With Love” in Everyone Says I Love You—not a highlight in movie-musical history, but Chazelle doesn’t know that.
A smirking John Legend shows up, proclaiming “Jazz is the future!” So why isn’t this a jazz musical rather than a pop pastiche mangling the profound, gay dreaminess that French director Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand pioneered in Lola, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Un Chambre en ville ,and Three Seats for the 26th? (That’s a syllabus for Gay Cinema 102.)
No matter how many honors are showered on La La Land, it represents regression in movie culture. The real movie-musical advance came in 1998 with the gay filmmaking team Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s tribute to Demy, a musical about AIDS activism and the gay search for ideal love titled Jeanne and the Perfect Guy. (Ducastel and Martineau return next year with the revolutionary gay romance Theo and Hugo.) La La Land’s title contains a smug put-down of the very Hollywood banality Chazelle aspires toward. If Chazelle had true musical instincts, his title would be “La La La Land.” Or is that too gay?
La La Land is playing in theaters now.