DIRECTED BY Lisa Cholodenko
STARRING Frances McDormand, Kate Beckinsale, Christian Bale, Alessandro Nivola
Opens November 28, Cert 15tbc, 107 mins
A clever, compassionate and original relationships study which uses the mellower side of the LA rock'n'roll world as its backcloth, Cholodenko's follow-up to the acclaimed High Art is funny, wry and astute. It allows you to feel for its lost boys and girls as they feel their way towards honesty and a variation on fulfilment. Music weaves its merry or melancholy way around their moral mistakes.
Thus much fun can be had spotting Lou Barlow and Folk Implosion as the band who back Britpop star Ian (Nivola). Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, Daniel Lanois and Beck's bassist also feature. But Cholodenko's story first arose as she gazed at Joni Mitchell's painting on the cover of the Ladies Of The Canyon album. She imagined the lives of the people living in that picture. Laurel Canyon's like no other quarter of Los Angeles—she's said it has a hippie, boho, timeless quality. (In truth it's only recently been reclaimed by the music industry from that other industry lovingly described in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights).
Serious young couple Sam (Bale) and fiancée Alex (Beckinsale) have both just graduated from Harvard medical school, and come to LA to study and work. They're to stay in Sam's mother Jane's home, which they'd assumed would be empty. When they arrive, Jane (McDormand) is very much present, high on bongs and halfway through producing an album for lan's group. Her home is her studio, and music and the attendant lifestyle dominate. The prim youngsters decide to stay until they can find somewhere less liberal and chaotic.
Gradually, their proper, anal sense of order is unravelled by the influence of Jane and her entourage. The odd, libidinous rapport between Jane and Ian threatens to entice the bookish Alex into a ménage à trois; Sam is meanwhile pursued by a fellow doctor (Natasha McElhone). It can only end in tears, especially when Sam starts sulking because Alex has taken to reading Spin magazine in bed. Jane and Ian have pressures of their own, too, as a cynical record industry (quelle surprise!) demands more commercial songs. While Ian indulges in booze and drugs, Jane buys time via some splendid, splenetic telephone rows with a power-exercising A&R woman.
Laurel Canyon doesn't strain to prove its cred; despite an early panning shot which shows gold discs and photos of Jane with Joni, Bruce, Iggy and Bowie on the wall, we deduce her track record through her attitude and personality. It's a plum role for the unconventional McDormand, who's magnificent, bringing truth and realistic contradictions to a complex character. Good at what she does in an arena which values that less and less, Jane has few illusions. She has a greater, if unsentimental, understanding with her roguish toyboy than she does with her son. A lousy mother, she's driven Sam to rebel in the most inappropriate ways. Bale does an unselfish job of portraying a man with a stick up his ass.
Nivola's stab at a sort of Gallagher with more than one brain cell is less convincing, but it's a performance which American audiences will buy. Beckinsale has to bring freshness to the sheltered-woman's-sexual-awakening routine which the likes of Tara Fitzgerald have trotted through in countless John Duigan films, and through a combination of luminous beauty and little calculated time bombs of gaucheness, succeeds. She's helped no end by a female writer/director who avoids the inherent time-honoured pitfalls.
It's McDormand's movie, though. Cholodenko underscores her charisma offensive with some mischievous motifs: an AC/DCT-shirt is passed between cheating sexual partners like a modern-day scarlet letter, and wafts of Roxy and T. Rex punctuate the hit-and-miss Bunnymen-isms of the house band. The swings between fever and tedium of a recording studio are well captured, and the film's less rose-tinted than, say, Almost Famous, giving us workaday pathos rather than romanticised glamour.
Sure, there's infidelity, bisexuality, sex in the pool, loud guitars and clouds of dope smoke—yet Laurel Canyon is an understated, shrewd film, closer to Anne Tyler than Spinal Tap. If you've ever wondered what became of the spirits flying in "Woodstock" and "Big Yellow Taxi", here they—and their children—are. Not stardust, not golden, but fully recognisable as flawed, faith-seeking individuals. Grand.
Rating: 4 / 10