Sunday, February 5, 2017

Another Visit to "La La Land"


A few weeks back, when Barack Obama was still the president and a relative sense of sanity still prevailed, there was a general consensus that La La Land was some sort of movie miracle.

Times have changed.  There's been an all-too-predictable pre-Oscar backlash against La La Land, driven by the same kind of backstabbing politics -- the reason we can't have nice things.  There's a constant whisper in the air that La La Land can't really be that good.  So, clever SNL skits aside, it's my cinematic civic duty to tell you something: Yes, La La Land is really that good.

I'm all for the sudden Oscar push for Hidden Figures, because that's a terrific movie with some great performances and a real sense of verve.  It's just, well, La La Land isn't simply better; La La Land is a damn near perfect movie, one whose seeming flaws are in fact its real virtues (that long John Legend song notwithstanding).

Spoiler alert: I'm about to give away some key plot points to La La Land, so if you haven't seen it, just know you're missing one of the finest films that's likely to be made in your lifetime.  Oh, what's that?  You're one of those, "I don't like musicals" people?  OK, fine.  I understand, you don't like the idea of people bursting into song and dance even though you're probably likely to do exactly that when you're alone in the house -- you're just embarrassed by the expression of emotion through something as charming as musicals.  In that case, don't see La La Land -- and skip Christmas, sunsets and giggling babies, too, while you're at it; you, my friend, are not simply a curmudgeon, you're just a mean person.  You have my permission to skip La La Land

But as I watched La La Land for a third time tonight (bypassing the week's January-dregs new releases), some things came floating to mind as effortlessly as Sebastian and Mia in the planetarium.  These are the criticisms I've been hearing recently of La La Land, and my thoughts on them:

The singing is so ... weak.  They needed real singers.
Perhaps you are missing the point of La La Land, which is not, as SNL wants to have us believe, that these are "real people" singing in their real voices.  The movie is about jazz, just as writer-director Damien Chazelle's last film, the astonishing Whiplash, was -- and that jazzy, swingy, aimless feeling needs to suffuse the songs.  Does the opening number lack the impressive voices of, say, a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical?  Yeah.  Making La La Land into a "real" musical, one with "real" actors would have made it impossible to tell the story of struggling people.  They've got "real" singers, by the way -- Emma Stone more than held her own on Broadway in Cabaret, and Gosling started his career as an actor who could sing.  They're all terrific ... and all of them, including the "chorus," are given very specific kinds of ranges.  From its first moments, La La Land makes it clear that it will be a musical that plays the songs on its terms, and does so brilliantly.

There aren't really enough songs to make it a 'real' musical.
The singers aren't as good as they should be, but there aren't enough songs?  That's like Alvy Singer's joke in Annie Hall about the two ladies complaining about the food at a restaurant: It's terrible, says one.  The other agrees: "And such small portions."  The reason we'd like to see more songs in La La Land is because the ones that are there are so good.  And trust me, the more they get into your head the more they stay there.  An original musical (a rare commodity in Hollywood, and increasingly anywhere) starts with songs you've never heard.  To get to know them requires listening to them over and over, and the La La Land soundtrack proves that they are songs that get better with every successive play.  It's a fantastic song score.

Ryan Gosling's character is a total jerk; Emma Stone lacks a strong character.
Yes, Ryan Gosling's character, Sebastian, is self-absorbed, arrogant and difficult to work with.  Perhaps you miss the scene where Keith (John Legend) tells him exactly that.  Sebastian shrugs: "Tell me something I don't know."  The movie's entire story is built on the notion that he and Emma Stone's Mia don't really hit it off, partly because the first time they met (technically the second) he was a complete jerk to her.  The movie isn't about true love, you may have noticed.  It's not about a love-at-first-sight spark.  Sebastian is self-absorbed.  Mia is flailing (though the movie makes it clear she's actually a very good actress).  A guy who can't think of anything but his craft and a girl who thinks, "Maybe I'm not cut out for this" -- those aren't two people who are going to last long together.  La La Land is not about the romantic destiny of two people to be together.  That is not this movie, I feel obligated to say it again, because ...

They could have wound up together if they had just tried harder.
No.  You've misunderstood this easy-to-understand movie, you've applied your own notions of how movies are supposed to portray romance.  The key to understanding La La Land is to look at it a second time knowing what you learn at the end: Mia and Sebastian cannot be together.  If they fall in love and acquiesce to the notions of true romantic love, one of them has to lose.  This seems easy as the film begins -- Mia just needs to become Sebastian's little wife and let him make the money.  But that will only solve one problem.  Sebastian goes out of his way to make Mia attend her audition, the one that changes her life, because he knows that even though it will pull them apart, it will give them each the chance to fulfill their ambitions.  They simply can't do it together, no matter how tempting it might seem.  And that's the emotionally rough part of La La Land, the bit that ties it together with Whiplash: One way or another someone's going to lose.  And it's going to hurt.

What hurts is that 15 minutes in the middle, when the movie slows to a crawl.  They should have cut that part out.
But then they would have cut out the movie's soul.  Mia is a little ahead of Sebastian in worrying that the relationship is doomed, but she thinks there's still hope as long as he gives up the touring.  But he reminds her the touring is what she told him he should do -- his big dream of his own club will just have to wait.  This is the "practical dream."  And this scene, the one at the dinner table in Sebastian's apartment, drives some people loony.  The movie slows down to a crawl.  The fun saps out of the movie.  It's no longer light on its feet, it's gloomy, it's sad, it's serious, it's not romantic.  And that is precisely why it's there.  Lose this scene and nothing makes sense.  Mia gets up to leave not because she's angry at what Sebastian has said, but because that is all there is left to do.  Each has taken the other as far as they can ... well, almost.  If it weren't for that uncomfortable dinner scene, we wouldn't have the tears-down-your-face delightful one of Sebastian driving to the house in front of the library.  That slow, careful scene of troubling emotions is what the movie spins on.  Its pacing is completely different than the rest of the film, and that's exactly as it should be.

OK, fine, I'll accept all of that -- but it's just really OK, it's not great, it's not like those MGM musicals in the 1950s, right? 
No, you're right.  It's better.  Because it has found a way to recreate homages to those films (and most every other significant musical ever made) and still do something important, do something the film stresses needs to be done with every art form -- it pushes cinema forward.  By looking at the beautiful past of moviemaking, it borrows the right language and the right techniques, but still manages to create a film that has much to say about our own lives, about where we are today in the modern world, our desire to see things stay the same and our relentless pushing ahead into an unknown future.  And it does all of that with singing, dancing and beauty.  It's not Singin' in the Rain or American in Paris, sure -- but it belongs with them.

Well, you just like it because you're from L.A.  You know, that liberal bubble, that place that reveres itself to the exclusion of the rest of the world.
I love it -- and I do love it -- because I came here with a dream.  I've fulfilled parts of it, much is still left undone, but I came to L.A. for the same reason anyone comes here ... or goes to New York ... or London ... or Paris ... or gets out of their little town in rural Ohio and moves to Cleveland.  Or even just wishes that one day he or she could do that.  La La Land is about all those people.  It's about the people who came to L.A., specifically, because they had an ambition: they read comic books as kids and now write or direct or star in super-hero movies.  It's about the people who came here because they loved Schwarzenegger movies and wanted to write the best action movie ever.  Or saw Star Wars and wanted to be the next George Lucas.  La La Land is not just about actors and singers -- it's about, as Mia's final song says, "the ones who dream."

That's all of us.

Whether you're just starting out and hope this is the way it goes, or you're wildly successful and remembering how it felt.  Whether you're an enormous failure but like recalling your early moments of optimism, or you're just a middle-aged kind-of-made-it-but-not-quite ... or you're someone who never mustered the courage to do that crazy thing you wanted to do, La La Land makes you feel better about even having tried, about simply having thought of it.

And it's a stark, unexpectedly tough reminder that if you do get it, you're going to have to be giving up something else.

On top of all that, it's the most visually ravishing, most carefully constructed, most satisfying movie released last year -- and 2016 was a year with some honestly remarkable films.  They are all worthy, they are all good.  It's just that La La Land soars above them.

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