In this latest episode of Astrid Swan and Nick Triani’s movie review series, they experience La La Land, the much discussed Oscar-winning musical that stole their hearts (but not everybody's).
La La Land stole my heart within the first three minutes and the first musical number.
It is a romantic concoction of the old Hollywood and present day LA. Fiction marries realism at a beautiful wedding here. Cinemascope, the orchestrated and jazzy soundtrack, ad-hoc dance scenes in the middle of a discussion and the themes of finding one’s path as a creative enchanted me in a way that rarely happens. I know, at this point it seems that I am one of the only people who enjoyed this movie. At least according to my FB feed. But I won’t let that bother me. I am a cinematic musical buff. Geek. Whatever you want to call me. This film is the language I speak. If I could pick a couple of new careers for myself they would include a life as a Hollywood musical star and a NASA futurity narrator. Go figure.
La La Land is nothing new; it is everything old, knowingly and on purpose. I trusted the film to tell me a magical story about something I can relate to and it did. It doesn’t hit the screenwriting jackpot with twists and surprises or a very feminist well-thought out representation of women as actors or creatives. It just works. The acting is both feeling and funny, John Legend has the best line of the film and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are believable in this attempt to illustrate the inner and outer processes of creative people. La La Land works in the way that a little magic, charisma and saturated color can. It manages to tell about the inner worlds of its characters, up close and personal, combining dream-like scenes to harsh realities. Coming out of the cinema I was certain that I could float above Helsinki and dance my way home… for me that was enough.
Coming out of the cinema I was certain that I could float above Helsinki and dance my way home… for me that was enough.
Sometimes a film or a piece of art begins to represent a change in political atmosphere or becomes severely criticised for structural things that it doesn’t cause alone, but is implicated in. This is happening to La La Land. The discussion online before the Oscars was against La La Land purely because suddenly the film was the representation of everything that has been wrong in Hollywood for a long time. I am glad that people are expressing their tiredness of non-representation of brown and black life experience on the silver screen, and the structurally upheld racism that was alluded to in the 89th Oscar gala. Still, I’m not certain that pitting films against each other is a productive way to fight anything. I’m 100%c certain that Moonlight is more important for our times and possibly a better film (I need to go and see it), but I can still respect the art and labor that went into realizing La La Land.
I think that there truly can be an existence where it is ok to love an old-fashioned musical from the year 2016 and to actively attempt to overthrow the power of white supremacy and patriarchy. Call me a post-feminist, if you wish.
This past month has seen a considered media onslaught against Damien Chazelle’s reboot of the Hollywood musical, La La Land. A combination of fawning critics and award ceremony acknowledgement seems to have driven many to come out and attack the movie. The most ridiculous example of this hyperbole was when the Independent ran a story about an Arab actor being typecast in Hollywood whilst coming to the conclusion that if La La Land does win the Oscar for best movie, it will somehow be solely responsible for the movie industry’s attitudes to racial profiling and minority casting. They didn’t have to worry so much about that happening, as the Oscars managed to deliver the biggest cock-up ever in live TV history (the ultimate example of fake news). But even this was considered by some as a conspiracy to take away attention from eventual Best Picture winner, Moonlight. Has everyone lost their marbles? Somewhere in the bowels of Hollywood’s humor gallows, namely those well known icons of ethnically diverse cinema, Stanley Kubrick, The Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Woody Allen etc. have realized they’ve dodged a bullet that Chazelle is taking. Hollywood is (and always has been) a white male domain. The furore of underrepresented racial minorities at recent Oscar ceremonies is real, yet we live in a world dominated by white people in powerful positions and a media that increasingly represents that white power. The Oscars is no different.
So much of my social media feed has been full of white-liberal-middle-class ire aimed squarely at La La Land – I’m beginning to wonder did people watch the same movie as me? La La Land’s biggest crime at this stage seems to be not being Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. This argument against La La Land is positing the view that film and in turn the arts should at all times be reflecting the social diversity represented in our societies. I’m not sure I agree with that. I do think diversity in our societies needs to be better represented across the board, but not for the sake of it. Perhaps my point here is we should save our anger and protest for those that truly deserve it. Sadly, any form of awards ceremony nowadays ultimately reduces the art in question to a type of “my movie/album/book/art is better than yours” pissing contest. The level of ‘fake rage’ that’s been whipped up by La La Land is palpable. Moonlight winning best movie is a great statement to make. It’s just such a shame that La La Land had to be served up at the altar of righteous indignation, merely for having the temerity of being an entertaining movie and not anything more meaningful. The site of John Legend singing numbers from La La Land at the Oscars ceremony brings a certain kind of irony with it. Is his blackness not real enough, or not the right kind to pacify this out pouring of white liberal guilt?
The site of John Legend singing numbers from La La Land at the Oscars ceremony brings a certain kind of irony with it. Is his blackness not real enough, or not the right kind to pacify this out pouring of white liberal guilt?
But judged on its own terms, as a movie, does La La Land deliver? A resounding yes from me, I loved La La Land. This has much to do with my own adoration of the Hollywood musical. Hollywood is a key word here. La La Land is built on the history and myth making of those famous hills. Along with the Western, the musical is one of the true harbours of American film, a genre it can truly claim to be its own. As many have noted, La La Land is perfect award fodder, bringing back into focus a genre that has been somewhat neglected in recent years. The musical in essence, and certainly of the Hollywood variety, lives in the domain of the unrealistic, a true mirror of the dream in film. An escape route. Is it shallow? Yes, quite possibly, but it’s also great entertainment. La La Land does however offer a present day contemporary sheen. I can relate to some of the concerns of the main protagonists; career ambition, curation, the daily grind and scheduling of our lives. The much discussed ‘non professional’ dancing and singing skills of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling only reinforces some connect with our world (these are ‘real’ characters). These subtle differences to genre norm posits La La Land outside the wave of pure nostalgia – La La Land does have a vacuous now currency about it. Plot and structure wise, it borrows heavily from what I feel maybe the last truly great musical, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York. The similarities seem more than uncanny – La La Land doesn’t quite reach New York New York’s intensity (few films do).
The dance numbers are perfunctory (although the much discussed opening scene is breathtaking). But it’s the smaller moments that makes La La Land more than just flashy pasazz. Stone and Gosling have bundles of chemistry and charisma, their performances are exceptional. I cared about these characters. Their romance was real. From the tension of missed dates and theatre performances, Chazelle keeps their relationship on the wire, whilst investing enough in us the audience that we hope their story works out. Opposites attract. The too-cool-for-you Jazz snob of Gosling against the budding ‘roll call’ nervousness of Stone light up the screen. The most contemporary of twists and daily concerns means that this musical doesn’t conform. And the music is a winner, Chazelle cleverly imposing the main theme from the score in most musical numbers, and it’s a good refrain. Best Oscar winning song ‘City Of Stars’ could be a close, second cousin to Mo Tucker’s ‘Afterhours’ in its charming naivety, Goslings ‘untrained voice’ perfect. But here’s the thing. La La Land woke me from a cinema slumber. It has moments… actually it’s full of them – in bright technicolor. Nowadays I live my cinema life for the escape and La La Land really gave me that in spades. Was this a substantial film experience? To those who expected more substance from La La Land, I only have to ask, “why?” This is no political parable or realist drama.That doesn’t diminish the power this movie had to make me feel emotional (or at the least tap my foot). La La Land represents a high point of that old Hollywood magic, a reminder that the old ways can still kick, still matter and at least for two hours remove us from the daily grind. Sometimes, that’s more than enough.