Tuesday, February 28, 2017
“La La Land” – a movie review by William Falcetano (written before the Oscars)
I went to this movie on Valentine’s Day; it was one of those things guys do, along with buying flowers and boxes of chocolates and dinner. Guys do this sort of thing not because we are hopeless romantics – we’re not – but because the women in our lives are romantics and we must go along. So I went to see the musical “La La Land” a skeptic determined to put on a happy face, grin and bear it (if it proved to be a really painful experience I could always get my comeuppance in a movie review); but I left the theater a convinced believer – and you will too.
The first scene – on a jammed highway overpass – was amazing, but almost backfired for an excess of energy, too much kinetic, balletic movement. Our leading lady Mia Dolan, played by the beautiful and talented Emma Stone, is busy texting (what else is there to do when stopped in traffic?) while our leading man Sebastian Wilder, played by the handsome and gifted Ryan Gosling, is stuck behind her, fuming with road rage (more than once a woman in the audience was heard to say to her boyfriend or husband – “that’s just like you!”). When the chance comes to move ahead a few feet she is busy texting and he, full of umbrage, leans on his horn while passing her. She responds by flipping him the bird – not an auspicious start to a love story! The couple meet again when Mia finds her car has been towed (cars again!); she wanders into a piano bar where this same fella is acting out a little rebellion by improvising complicated jazz numbers when the owner (J.K. Simmons) just wants traditional Christmas melodies. He’s fired on the spot and she falls in love; but when she approaches him he turns out to be the same jerk again. Strike two. But winged Cupid has brought these two love birds together and will not quit until they meet a third time – this time three’s the charm. Now he’s reduced to a shoulder slung keyboard in a cheesy band playing 80s pop tunes at pool parties for the pretty and the vacuous – a painful fate for a jazz purist. They manage to save each other from their mutual entanglements and begin their dance around and with each other.
Music is an integral part of this film: it stands alone in jazz scenes and is interwoven with dance numbers. Song and dance are what make musicals a distinctive art form – and the musical film is one of America’s great art forms, along with Jazz. Yet Jazz is dying and the musical – well it’s all but dead. In Sebastian’s lamentation over the death of jazz we are invited to think also about this other art form which is so characteristically American, and so much a part of our American story. There are plenty of allusions to the history of musicals – this is after all a film about film making just as “Singing in the Rain” – perhaps the most well-known and celebrated movie musical. Mia is a barista on the Warner Brother’s lot and she is gobsmacked by the movie stars who dash in for a take-out cappuccino. We see scenes being shot as they meander around the back lots with the Hollywood Hills in the background. Mia wants to make a drama, a film, something; Sebastian wants to restart an old jazz club. They are millennials so full of ambition, so short of success, so hungry for auditions and gigs; this is as much “La Boheme” as La La Land. They pursue their dreams with the ardor and purity of youth – you can’t help but root for them. Besides they are so good looking you can’t take your eyes of their faces – Emma Stone works small miracles in lots of close up shots.
This is a very knowing work of art, it alludes to and incorporates the Griffith Observatory from “Rebel without a Cause” – an LA landmark; dance scenes take place in Paris against cartoon backdrops that recall that other musical – “An American in Paris”. The staging, lighting, costumes all work their magic and mix together almost seamlessly with the realism of the Los Angeles sun and the California nights as street scenes jammed with parked cars under romantic street lights somehow come to life to evoke a strong sense of place.
But LA exists in a larger world and Paris beckons to Mia – how can she resist? In the end they both find success; but love...ah love…such a tricky, slippery thing...let’s just say they find love but not in the way we might have imagined or hoped for – and it is this which saves this movie from the worst faults of the movie musical – the predictably happy ending. The dollop of realism with which this film ends blends reality with fantasy in a way that works; at least it worked for me: a determined skeptic and an old codger familiar with love and loss.
During the Great Depression, in the 1930s, musicals rendered a real service for a country that needed an escape, even if only for an hour or two, from a national reality that was less than savory; and this musical can do that for you too just as it did for me and my gal on Valentine’s Day.