LA LA LAND (12/25/2016)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend
My Rating: 9/10
PLOT: While navigating their careers in Los Angeles, a jazz pianist (Gosling) and an actress (Stone) fall in love while attempting to reconcile their aspirations for the future.
“La La Land” was greeted by the American public in one of two ways. There was no middle of the road. You either loved it or hated it.
Critics loved it. It broke records at the Golden Globes that year and was the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture at the Oscars (“Moonlight” took the prize instead, and deservedly so).
When it came to the viewing public, people were immediately divided into opposing camps, with each trying to convince the other they were wrong. “It’s homage!” cried one camp. “It’s derivative and sad!” cried the other.
Me? I’m part of the “loved-it” camp. And after re-watching it tonight, for the first time since seeing it in theatres, I have no plans to change my mind.
I once wrote that there is no movie more in love with “old Hollywood” than “The Artist.” Well, “La La Land” is more in love with classic movie musicals than any other modern movie in recent memory. It opens with an astonishing musical number, “Another Day of Sun”, set on a Los Angeles overpass. In a breathtaking feat of choreography and cinematography, scores of dancers perform nifty moves in and around a traffic jam, incorporating a live band inside what looks like a UPS truck, in one single take…or at least what LOOKS like one single take. Could be some CG in there. Who cares? It’s awesome, and it sets the tone right away: this will be like one of those old musicals where people break into song and dance without warning. You can stay where you are or you can leave now, but this is what’s happening.
After that, we settle in to a tried and true story of boy (Sebastian [Ryan Gosling], a jazz pianist who wants to start his own jazz club) meets girl (Mia [Emma Stone], an aspiring actress looking for a break). This part of the story was old when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland did it in countless other films, so yeah, I get it. I can see why some folks called it derivative.
But that criticism neatly dismisses the underlying subplot about the Old vs. the New. Sebastian desperately wants to start a jazz club that plays the greats – Monk, Coltrane, Davis – because, as he says in a passionate speech to Mia, jazz is dying. Nobody wants to hear it anymore. It’s old. (He decries a nearby club that combines jazz, samba, and tapas, or some such nonsense.) “They worship everything and value nothing,” he laments. But
Keith, a fellow musician (played by John Legend) tries to get him to see sense. “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” History is written by the people who strike out in a new direction. Sebastian himself uses this philosophy with Mia, who has gotten tired of auditioning for the same teachers and doctors and coroners over and over again. He tells her to do something different if you’re tired of the same old/same old. She takes his advice and starts writing a one-woman play about her life.
And here’s where it gets cool. While the characters in the movie are urging each other to embrace new concepts, “La La Land” still has one foot firmly in the past, i.e., the grand musical traditions of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, etcetera. Two later numbers stick out in my mind. One is a twilight duet between Sebastian and Mia, shot on location in the Hollywood Hills when the sky is that perfect shade of somewhere-between-pink-and-purple. They sing a little and then they do a beautiful dance together, but they’ve just met, so they’re careful to dance ALONE together…watch it and you’ll see what I mean. Right out of Vincente Minnelli. (Let’s be clear…Gosling and Stone are not exactly Fred and Ginger, but they do a damn sight better than I could do myself, so I give them props.)
Another number with classic-musical overtones is set during the first giddy months of their relationship. With little or no singing (can’t remember which), we follow Seb and Mia as they tick off Los Angeles landmarks, finishing at the famous Griffith Observatory. They enter the planetarium, and in a gloriously giddy moment of cinematic fantasy, they rise into the air and dance among the stars and galaxies before falling perfectly into their seats and sharing a kiss. I no longer remember what I did the first time watching this movie, but this time around, I watched that whole planetarium sequence with a goofy grin on my face. If you can’t enjoy watching people dancing in the stars, this movie is just not for you.
At one point, Sebastian tells someone, “You say romantic like it’s a dirty word.” I like that. This movie is, above all, romantic, in spite of how it ends. It’s romantic in the sense that it revels in the unreasonable, illogical hope that everything will work out okay in the end. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still dream. (There’s even a song about this exact thing, sung by Emma Stone in a sequence near the end that oozes romance and heartbreak and everything in between.)
But all of this is nothing…NOTHING…compared to the emotional roller-coaster of the last thirty minutes of the movie. You may have already guessed that, no, Sebastian and Mia do not actually wind up together. And it’s here that “La La Land” gets all serious in the middle of the fluff, because it explores the nature of success and what is necessary to achieve it. Sebastian is touring with a band that pays well…but it’s not exactly a jazz ensemble. Mia is just about ready to give up acting…until a casting agent gives her an opportunity to star in a movie shooting in Paris for four months. These two characters, for whom the audience has been rooting for the previous 90 minutes, are on a downward spiral, and the only way to save their relationship would be for one or the other to completely give up on their dreams. But neither of them would ask that of the other. So they go their separate ways.
WHAT? After all this they don’t wind up together? Well…what would you have preferred? An ending that awkwardly keeps them together, with him, say, playing jazz in a French club while she shoots a movie in Paris during the day? Enjoying success together? Having kids? Sure, that kind of ending is POSSIBLE. (In fact, in one of the many highlights of the movie, you even get a tease of what that might have been like.) But, hey. Isn’t that just the traditionalist way of looking at things? Why not strike out in a different direction? Do something no one’s doing. End your movie where each character gets what they’ve always wanted their entire lives…even if that means they don’t get each other.
Boy, that last sentence sounds harsh. But that’s what this movie’s about, and I think the film’s detractors simply couldn’t get past the grand tradition that demands the two leads wind up together. They wanted “Singin’ in the Rain”, and instead they got the musical equivalent of “The Remains of the Day.” (Maybe not quite that extreme, but I trust the point is made.)
ANYWAY. Like I said, I just finished watching this a couple of hours ago, and I am no less convinced of its greatness. Even though it’s a wrench watching their relationship head towards the rocks, the movie makes up for it at the end with half an hour of glorious, emotional catharsis that left me feeling wrung out, but in a good way. It’s not quite a tragedy, but not quite a comedy. Like life itself, it falls somewhere in between.