Laurel Canyon

(Lisa Cholodenko, USA, 2002)


Movies about the composing, recording and producing of popular music face special problems in persuading viewers of their essential plausibility. Especially when the plot hinges on the difference between a song that is supposedly mediocre versus a song that is supposedly sublime – but the difference is not necessarily evident to the ear.

Lisa Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon comes as a disappointment five years after her promising feature debut, High Art (1998). Like so many American films hailing from the independent sphere, it is content to drop a bunch of over-talkative characters into a social world that is meant to be endlessly fascinating in and of itself – in this case, the behind-the-scenes world of the Los Angeles music industry.

Jane (Frances McDormand) is the main drawcard here. She is a celebrated and spirited music producer who is carrying on an affair with a younger muso, Ian (Alessandro Nivola). She is also mother to Sam (Christian Bale), who is rather embarrassed to introduce her to his fiancée, the stitched-up Doctoral candidate Alex (Kate Beckinsale).

One day Alex is drawn, as if by a siren, to the droning, mournful sound issuing from Ian in Jane's home studio. A kinky triangular complication begins to suggest itself. Meanwhile, the gormless Sam finds himself attracted at his hospital workplace to the exotic Sara (Natascha McElhone).

Laurel Canyon does not have much on its mind. Eschewing a vigorous satire of the music world, it becomes a lazy, open-ended drama about people who, in various ways, are stuck in their ruts and grapple with possibilities for revitalising their lifestyles. Cholodenko shoots it like a telemovie, doing little with the LA locations beyond including the inevitable swimming pools, decadent parties and sleek executive offices.

The acting is the only thing which carries the film. McDormand is terrific, but if the role of Jane is meant to shine (as pre-publicity has suggested) as the beacon for future screen depictions of women over the age of forty, then pop culture is really in trouble.

© Adrian Martin October 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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