La La Land (2016)
A Damien Chazelle Film
I didn’t remember the name of the writer/director of a brilliant film called, Whiplash (2014), which I gave 4.5 stars (**** on my four-star system). It was a forceful, in-your-face, film from 2014. This meant that La La Land (2016) was coming to me, as fresh and surprising, unlike most films we see these days. All I knew was that there was hype surrounding it, as well as Golden Globe nominations. Hype is a terrible thing because it creates expectations and doesn’t allow one to see it unfiltered. But from the opening words and melody sung by a driver stuck in traffic jam on the freeway in L.A., I was captivated. Eighteen months later I’m nervous about watching it again because those watching it with me – for their first time – know I gave it 10 out of 10. Not just ***** but a perfect score. That’s hype. Maybe that’s why it has taken 18 months for me to get to see it again and for anyone to watch it with me.
Some things in life hang on one decision or one event and create the stream that comes afterwards. Without that trigger, it all would have played out differently. For the characters in La La Land it is pride. But not in the usual sense where it comes out of a situation in which someone can’t back down from something they’ve done or a decision they’ve made. It’s the pride that comes with self interest or selfishness, or probably, more aptly, a lack of selflessness.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) hears one side of a telephone conversation, his partner, Mia’s, side. Her answers clearly state in Web’s mind – and the viewer’s mind – the words from the speaker at the other end. It’s one of those awkward conversations which you have about someone else when they’re present where you speak quietly, almost conspiratorially, your voice edged with a hint of defiant defense of them. Mia’s mother is obviously judging Seb for having his own path in life, which is doing things his way, and dreaming of what he hopes for, no matter how unlikely. What the judgement leads him to do, is get a regular gig playing keyboards, and this newfound maturity results in him being on the road all the time, performing. He signed a contract which he believes he can’t break. A lot of time is given to the interaction he has with the band he signs with. He’s always hesitant, physically and intellectually, but he’s swayed by the memory of his sister’s voice in his head and the way he knows he has been perceived by Mia’s family. And contracts such as the one he’s signed could well result in him being sued.
Seb thinks it is what Mia wanted him to do and he did it for that reason without realising he was projecting it onto Mia. What he did was give up his dream, thinking it was for Mia. The fact that he missed her ‘one night only‘ one-woman show and the fact that she got an amazing one-chance-only opportunity to kickstar her acting career could both have been solved. They are misleading (potentially clichéd) plot points that could have been worked out. The fact that he allowed himself to feel worthless, and signed up for something he was never happy to do, created the situation. And to blame him for it would be ludicrous because it’s a natural protective instinct. It’s human nature to do what he did; to protect his basic image of himself – as a good person and do something selfless for someone he loves – and most people in life settle for less than their dream, so it’s realistic.
What Seb eventually did was, also selfless, make Mia continue to pursue her dream, by going to one more audition. That decision, made for her by Seb, was not one she made out of self-interest. He almost literally forced her to attend. By this time, words had been said that shouldn’t have been said, and they were broken-up and going down separate paths.
La La Land cleverly mixes old-fashioned, colourful, Hollywood (La La) musical fluff, with a grittier, more realistic (Land-based), storyline. Unlike Singin’ in the Rain (1952) or On the Town (1949) or The Band Wagon (1953). it’s not dealing in caricatures and overly formulaic plot devices. Chazelle somehow knows exactly how to balance the scenes where people break into a soft shoe shuffle and a bit of tap, fly up into the air and waltz magically, with the hard-hitting realism of Whiplash, where life is difficult, often savage, a constant struggle to survive negotiate and survive the potholes. And Chazelle knows just how to create a scene in a relationship where everything should have been wonderful, with Seb surprising Mia with a home-cooked meal, which starts to go wrong and then inextricably heads further south. Hurt feelings and pent-up frustration lead to unkind words. Her reaction, to walk out of her own apartment, is completely understandable and yet the screenplay never really characterises Seb as the bad guy in the situation because his motivation was always coming from a good place.
It’s remarkable that Chazelle can manufacture a break up while still leaving the audience feeling for both sides, simultaneously. It’s all the more remarkable for the fact that in the middle of a realistic series of scenes resulting in a chance encounter five years later, Chazelle inserts another fantasy sequence, which shows how it could have been if Seb had made a different decision, broke his contract and gone to Paris with Mia so she could star in the film she’s been offered. It’s an incredible sequence which reminds audiences old enough (or weird enough) to remember (or know) The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and An American in Paris (1951). And it’s full of magic and beauty, the way a dream is, of something that was lost, but need not have been lost.
Certainly most of the weight of their breakup is shouldered by Seb, and Mia is almost perfect, but the love story is still based in the kind of realism that I – the moviegoer and the person – have experienced which has more of its footing in being real, than being clichéd. The difference, with the fantasy-kind-of-love which happens in movies, between success and failure in love, is that the feelings Seb and Mia had for each other weren’t powerful enough to force them to stay together. If it had been, then the final fantasy of the film would have been how the film played out in La-La-Land’s stock-standard musicals.
Chazelle describes the movie world kind of love in the last musical number by defining Seb’s reaction to losing his job playing Christmas carols in a very nice restaurant differently the second time around. If their love was the kind of love that surmounts all obstacles – and Seb selflessly left his dream behind, favouring Mia’s dream – he wouldn’t have almost knocked her over in the restaurant when she was trying to tell him how much his piano-playing meant to her. If he’d seen her and saw in her what she’d just heard in him, he would have locked her in his sights and swept her off her feet. Instead, his impatience with the world, which is his character trait – and flaw – causes him to beep her on the freeway, and to physically brush her off in the restaurant when he’s fired. If he wasn’t the headstrong man his character actually is, he might have seen who was standing in front of him, mesmerised by his music. Instead he was mesmerised by himself and that’s why all the cards fell the way the did. As his friend from school says, it’s people like Seb who are killing jazz, because they won’t let go of how it was delivered and developed by the greats in the past – to allow it to find its new, up-to-date, expression, in the present.
In La La Land – Hollywood – they specialise in movies about make-believe. And there are few happy endings even for those who achieve their dream of becoming successful. Success almost always seems to become polluted by other things along the way. If you want to see how brutal success in Hollywood really is, then watch the best film made about it: All About Eve (1950). Or read (probably) the best book about it, Barbara Leaming’s ‘Marilyn Monroe‘. There are few happy endings in Hollywood when you follow the train all the way to its final destination; which is why Chazelle gives you the it-could-have-been end, and the but-this-is-more-likely end.
For Chazelle to have found a composer like Justin Hurwitz who could so fully realise the magic required of the music is a bizarre, unbelievable, serendipitous occurrence. To have also locked in such good people in terms of production and choreography and made so many courageous decisions with the moves he requires his camera to achieve, is another achievement that boggles my mind. [The opening take on a clogged L.A. freeway is so beautiful, fluid and self-assured, it brought tears to my eyes.]
I know the film has had some bad reactions from some viewers but that’s not surprising given that in its own way it is as bold and in-your-face as Whiplash. But it’s 10/10 in virtually every department (except lip-syncing – 8/10) and I never expected a second viewing to result in another 10/10. Five stars.