Directed by Damien Chazelle
It’s Friday 13th, there are tide-surge flood alerts all down the east coast, much of Scotland lies under a blanket of snow, Trump’s about to move into the White House, our hospitals are in a state of near collapse, we’re cutting ourselves off from Europe, I have a hacking cough, and Newcastle’s pavements are splashy and covered with half-melted snow as I arrive at The Gate. I need to choose between two highly acclaimed films – La La Land, the escapist musical millions are drooling over, and Manchester by the Sea, a painful human drama that seems to leave folk very glum. Well, which would you choose? There’s a considerable streak of masochism in me, but under the circumstances even I hardly hesitate.
You’ll have heard all the hype – well don’t entirely believe it. This is a charming, entertaining, decorative and life-affirming film, a musical in the old Hollywood style – but it’s not quite as good as I hoped. That said, it is very good, and I recommend anyone to give it a try for 2 hours of escape from real life, maybe the chief function of film musicals down the ages.
From the delightful opening sequence – an extravert, non-mournful version of the old Everybody Hurts video – with drivers climbing out of their cars during a traffic jam to sing and dance together, it handles the segue from speaking, acting, ‘real’ life into music perfectly, and this continues to be an impressive feature – whenever emotions get big the action takes flight into music, like it’s the most natural thing in the world. That neither Emma Stone nor Ryan Gosling has a trained voice makes it all the more seamless. They’re ordinary, good looking but pretty unglamorous, in the way that Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler were. Gosling in particular is a revelation – as well as tuneful singing he plays a decent jazz piano – learned specifically for the film, unbelievably. And he dances – my how he dances. Nothing flashy or spectacular, he’s more of the Fred Astaire school, effortlessly sliding into step so it seems like a natural extension of walking, rather than the muscular fireworks of the Gene Kelly persuasion. (For this see Channing Tatum’s splendid sailors’ dance in the other recent ‘loveletter to Hollywood’ Hail Caesar.)
Like many of the best musicals the plot is unimportant. It’s about love, the romance between Seb (Gosling), a purist jazz pianist, unwilling to taint his art with more popular music, and Mia (Stone) an actress and would-be playwright, both talented but neither especially so in the great fevered rolling boil of Hollywood, where all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas. They meet, spar a little, become besotted with each other, make compromises, then find their ambitions take them apart. All the tropes of the old fashioned musical are here, including a lovely extended dream sequence towards the end. Realism about Hollywood, à la Day of the Locust, isn’t what you’re looking for, here the unlucky ones still manage to live in stylish flats and get invited to glam, extravagant parties.
It’s all so pretty and colourful. What’s missing, though, despite great chemistry between the two leads, is that indefinable sense of utter infectious joy breaking through the fourth wall. Though pleasant enough it never grabs you by the heart and takes you along with it. So the world was still the same outside as when I left it, although nature herself had cleaned up her act a bit and the streets were dry. Escapism isn’t that easy these days. And Manchester by the Sea still glowers on the horizon.
Seen at Empire, Newcastle, January 2017