Tag Archives: musical

Review: ‘La La Land’

dfn-lalaland-poster-300The first encounter between Sebastian and Mia is not auspicious. What happens before that, however, is  startling.

Traffic has jammed to a standstill on a freeway overpass in Los Angeles. Suddenly music bursts out of nowhere and drivers and passengers begin singing, and then climbing out of their vehicles and dancing. The sequence opens La La Land and establishes the tone of a musical fantasy that is, occasionally, grounded in the realities of modern-day life in a big American city.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) are typical of many young people who move to Los Angeles in search of artistic opportunities. Sebastian is a piano player who loves traditional jazz music; Mia is an actress who loves performing for other people.

They appear to be a natural fit, and so their slowly-blooming relationship plays out as a pre-ordained romance. But ‘happily ever after’ is an elusive concept to achieve, whether on screen or not, and Sebastian and Mia face many challenges to their prospects as a couple.

Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) wrote and directed. His original screenplay creates variations on the “driven musician” and “ambitious actress” stereotypes that are then fully realized in the performances by Gosling and Stone. They display a wonderful chemistry, aided, no doubt, by their previous work together. While they don’t exactly sizzle with erotic heat, they emanate friendly, compatible vibes. It makes it much easier to accept and embrace their relationship, which is better constructed to endure obstacles than most on-screen romances.

The musical sequences freshen up the familiar narrative of a bittersweet romance, interrupting and commenting upon the characters and their dreams, hopes, and disappointments. As with many movie musicals, only one song really pops: “City of Stars,” a lovely, wispy, catchy thing that allows Gosling and Stone a proper duet. The other songs, all composed by Justin Hurwitz (music) and Benji Pasek and Justin Paul (lyrics), are serviceable; neither Gosling nor Stone are powerhouse vocalists, but the songs fit their range.

More notable than the songs themselves, the musical sequences are set in iconic Los Angeles settings that add additional layers of commentary. Even if you’ve never set foot in the city, for example, the familiar environs of the Griffith Observatory invite dreamy feelings of nostalgia and yearning, and Chazelle and company expand upon and deepen a shared memory.

At times, the broad strokes of La La Land resemble a tourist’s map of Hollywood in structure and outline. While not especially authentic to the trials and troubles of aspiring entertainers, it’s cheery and chipper and colorful, perhaps to the point of curing the common cold.

The film opens in Dallas theaters on Friday, December 16.

Review: ‘Rock of Ages’ Sings a Familiar Tune

'Rock of Ages'
‘Rock of Ages’

Do you love cover bands? Do you love karaoke? Do you love musicals? And, most important, do you love 80s hair-band power ballads?

If so, then Rock of Ages is probably right up your alley. Director Adam Shankman, who has specialized in cheerful populist entertainment throughout his career — including the musical adaptation Hairspray and the broad comedy Bringing Down the House — delivers musical numbers well-designed for the big screen, tightly edited in a blitzkrieg fashion that would make any modern action thriller proud.

The screenplay, credited to Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder, Iron Man 2), Chris D’Arienzo (Barry Munday), and Allan Loeb (The Dilemma, Just Go With It), is based on the long-running stage musical (book by D’Arienzo), and opens up the action to a degree.

The setting is The Bourbon Room, a venerable Hollywood hotspot owned by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and run with the assistance of the loyal Lonny (Russell Brand). Lately the club has fallen on hard times, and Dennis is counting on the final gig by the legendary band Arsenal, managed by tough cookie Paul Gill (Paul Giammti), to pump up his coffers. Arsenal’s notoriously unreliable leader, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), is breaking up the band to go solo.

The club is also under attack from newly-elected Mayor Mike Whitemore (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The framing device is the romantic relationship of Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough), an aspiring singer and recent arrival from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), an aspiring singer and waiter at the club.

In their supporting roles, Baldwin and Brand are snappy and eminently watchable. Their delivery is better than most of their material, but they are such seasoned comedic performers that it’s a pleasure to watch them whenever they appear.

The same cannot be said for the young Ms. Hough and Mr. Boneta. Granted that they are intended to represent the classic archetypes of wholesome Middle America, but they are so bland and vanilla that they tend to disappear into the backdrop rather than sizzle in the lead, as required.

Yet they fare better than Cruise, who is the Jar Jar Binks of the production. He is meant to be a charismatic performer, a sexual god who makes women faint at the sight of him. A portion of that is meant to be over the top, but Cruise is a humorless performer, and the film stops dead whenever he is “acting” dramatic. With his eyes hooded with heavy eye shadow, his age is apparent, and it seems to be a deliberate choice, to emphasize that he’s lost his edge and is slowly tumbling toward oblivion. Everyone is oblivious to the idea that Stacee Jaxx is past his prime, however; he’s still treated as though he’s the bee’s knees.

That speaks to the crux of the film: its effectiveness depends almost entirely upon your reaction to the concept and the music.

For me, the late 80s represents a wasteland era in popular music, a time when adult-oriented radio took hold across the nation’s airwaves and the soul was sucked out of rock ‘n’ roll. Watching Rock of Ages, therefore, is akin to a personal nightmare in which my remote control breaks during an endless episode of VH1’s “I Love the 80s — the Hair-Band Power Ballad Edition.”

Even if the musical aspect of the musical could be put aside, though — admittedly, an impossible proposition — there’s the matter of the cover-band flavoring. In essence, all we have here are secondhand versions of traditional favorites, without the kick that might come from hearing everything live. None of the performances stand on their own; they’re overly-dependent on nostalgia.

As noted, however, some people love cover bands and this particular brand of music and may look forward to humming along with songs like “Sister Christian” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and the like, in which case: Help yourself.

Rock of Ages opens wide throughout the Metroplex on Friday, June 15.