La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)

Posted: January 16, 2017 in Uncategorized

“La La Land” is a film about many things. It is a film about nostalgia in general and classic jazz music and the silver age of Hollywood in particular. While a lot of Hollywood is driven by nostalgia in the modern era, as evidenced by the slew of reboots and the return of everything from “Full House” to 8-bit Ninentdo systems, “La La Land” specifically makes an argument that there is a difference between nostalgia driven by past art being of higher quality, and empty nostalgia based solely on remembrance. At a low point in his life, one of our two main characters, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is reduced to playing keyboards in a lame 80s cover band. While I myself love 80s music, it’s clear that writer/director Damien Chazelle does not (sample line of dialogue: “You don’t ask a serious musician to play ‘I Ran’” [the Flock of Seagulls song]), and is making a differentiation between being nostalgic for the heyday of jazz as being legitimate and worthy nostalgia because it is something better than what is being produced today, and nostalgia for 80s New Wave music.

The film makes no such comparison between modern filmmaking and Silver Age films, though barbs against modern Hollywood run rampant in the film. There’s a sleazy screenwriter who hits on our other main character, Mia (Emma Stone), by talking about his gig writing a modern-day reimagining of “Goldilocks” from the bears’ perspective, which is only slightly exaggerated from some of the crap mainstream studios have in the pipeline right now. There’s also a scene where Mia is on a double date and her companions are complaining about the modern day experience of going to the theater, citing the temperature of theaters and the rudeness of other patrons, and claiming that watching movies at home on a big TV is better. Any lover of film will recognize that argument and immediately hate the characters making it. This is contrasted with Sebastian and Mia seeing a screening of a Silver Age Hollywood picture (“Rebel without a Cause”) at an old school movie theater, and the later sadness in a montage of seeing that theater closed down because, well, modern audiences neither appreciate the movie theater experience, nor appreciate old movies like they used to, perhaps thanks to streaming replacing video stores and many streaming services lacking in classic cinema choices.

So yes, a lot of “La La Land” is an ode to film and music that was popular in the 1950s, but the specific focus on quality differentiates it from a reactionary knee-jerk idea (now clichéd) that the 1950s were universally better than the modern era. No, that argument is reserved for reactionary White American Conservatives, and that false nostalgia gave us President Trump and his promise to restore America to some faux remembered greatness, which to them is usually that same idealized 1950s, when it isn’t the Reagan 80s. What’s interesting is that “La La Land” itself is not simply a film attempting to emulate the 1950s. It is set in the modern day, and the film makes no bones about that. In fact, a lot of the film centers around how the modern day material conditions of society often infringe on the things that make us happy, and the ability to follow our dreams. When a ringing cell phone brings a musical number to an abrupt end, or the film breaks when attempting to watch a classic movie, the film is making a point with those many moments of the real, modern world insisting on interrupting happiness and destroying dreams. That is really the other thing that this film is about, the difficulty in following one’s dreams in the face of the unavoidable challenges of the modern world.

The film itself is structured to showcase that theme. When the film begins we see people stuck in a traffic jam, the likes of which are infamous on L.A. highways. Then they break out into song, in a stark contrast to their surroundings and situation, giving a setpiece we would never actually see in a real 1950s music of the “Singin’ in the Rain” variety. The incongruity displayed in that number sets the stage for the themes of the film as a whole. As the film goes on, the musical numbers go from upbeat to sadder and more somber. They also become less frequent. The visual style of the film goes from having bright colors and costumes, reminiscent of the 50s musical, to a more muted and realistic color palette. The choreography becomes less elaborate, and the camera moves around a lot less fluidly. The visual style of this film is heavily tied to express the film’s themes and messages, and the writer/director deserves all of the accolades possible for pulling it off. Those early sequences, where the camera moves around in a dizzying, kinetic, hypnotizing fashion are almost breathtaking, especially considering how long some of the takes go without a cut and how elaborate the choreography taking place is.

The music itself ranges from excellent, to good, to forgettable. “La La Land” isn’t a great musical, even though it is a great film, and that’s okay. The rough and tumble nature of trying to turn real life into a Hollywood musical is expressed by the mixed quality of individual songs, and matches the struggle the characters go through to become their ideal selves. Sebastian wants to bring back classical jazz and open up a jazz club where he can play true, uncompromised jazz music. Mia wants to be a famous Hollywood actress, but is held back by the garbage Hollywood wants to produce and the powers that be not caring about artistic quality. They struggle to make ends meet, to not be viewed as objects of pity or derision by those who know them, and to maintain their dignity and purity in their quests to achieve their goals. Compromise is inevitable, and no one can truly make it in either art form of music or film without at some point selling out at least a little bit, and the struggle becomes what level of selling out is acceptable and necessary, and at what point does holding back from selling out just make you stubborn and pretentious. Mia can’t get any good roles, so she’s convinced by Sebastian to write her own play and thus a good role for herself. Sebastian, hearing half of a phone conversation between Mia and her mother, knows that he seems like a loser to any outsider for not having a good, steady job, so he compromises and joins a band that blends classical jazz with modern music. The band is successful, and the music sounds good (at least to my non-jazz-liking ears), but he’s miserable and feels the music he plays is an abomination. The film wants its audience to ask if it is right that dreams are unachievable without heavy compromise based on largely economic and partially social pressures, or if it is wrong to expect to be able to achieve your dreams because life isn’t fair and we shouldn’t expect it to be.

The film has maybe a mixed answer to this. There’s a little montage at the end of the film that shows an alternate version of events of this film if everything in our main characters’ lives went right after the first act. It’s a much different film, and a much happier alternate reality than the ones the characters actually inhabit. Does the film, and the audience, want that life for the characters? Of course. Was it ever reasonable to expect that for them, or anyone? No.

When Sebastian joins to band fronted by Keith (played by musician John Legend), Keith makes the argument that you can’t be a revolutionary if you’re a traditionalist. If you are too beholden to the past, you will never make anything new, never introduce the art form you love to new audiences, and what you love will die because you can’t accept change. The film, or at least Sebastian, originally treats Keith as practically the antichrist for holding this belief, but in the end “La La Land” is doing to the Silver Age Musical exactly what Keith’s band does to jazz in the film, and because of that audiences are accepting and loving “La La Land” even if they wouldn’t necessarily ever rent “Singin’ in the Rain” or “My Fair Lady”. So is Keith right, that art needs to change to survive, or is Sebastian right, that to change art into something it is not or is only partially what it used to be fatal to its quality and merely a slow death as opposed to an immediate one? I think the answer is that they are both right. Sebastian opens his club and it is a success, but Keith’s band is also a success. Perhaps the film thinks Keith compromised too much, and that “La La Land”, itself a compromise between and old film and a modern one (Prius jokes), threads the needle correctly, and that realistically, beyond arguments of right or wrong, there is no objectively possible way to create successful art and make enough money off of it to live without a degree of compromise for modern audiences’ tastes. My guess is that Chazelle accepts this reality, but finds it heartbreaking nonetheless. Also, while nostalgia for better art is understandable, especially when a lot of modern art (namely music and film) is abject swill, being strictly beholden to the past will only kill quality art. If quality art is to survive, it has to find where the acceptable level of compromise is. “La La Land” found it, so it is possible.

Beyond all this meaning and theme talk, it must be said that this film makes you care about its characters, who are well-performed by the actors even if their singing voices are merely better than average (don’t worry, there’s no Russell Crowe-level bad singing, it’s just not Broadway-caliber, which is fine). Sebastian and Mia aren’t the richest or most multi-layered characters, but you like them and enjoy seeing them on their journey and want them to be successful. I enjoyed the music, tapping my foot to many of the numbers, and I came close to crying at a couple of scenes, but ultimately did not do so. The film is funny and dramatic, and as much fun to watch as it was to analyze and think about. I loved it. A

 

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