Friday, December 16, 2016

Damien Chazelle | La La Land

new dreamers
by Douglas Messerli

Damien Chazelle (writer and director), Justin Hurwitz (composer), Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (lyrics) La La Land / 2016

In the tradition of the MGM movies of the 1940s and even earlier works starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, director Damien Chazelle has created a wonderfully visual throwback to the American movie musical, incorporating as well, the candy-colored musical (even operatic) fairy-tales of French director Jacques Demy, particularly (in plot terms) Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and (in musical inspiration) that director’s The Girls of Roquefort. Since I am a musical addict, I knew I’d love this film the first moment I read about it. I did.

 But La La Land is something quite original and special because it is also a paean to Los Angeles’ sites, landscape, and light along with lauding the seemingly eternal attraction of this great metropolitan area for dreamers of every kind. 
       The two young dreamers in this case are Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) and Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) who couldn’t be more different from another. Mia, from a small town in Nevada, is in awe of theater and film, and wants to become—what else?—an actress, suffering the ignominies of auditions where casting directors and producers interrupt with cell-phone conversations and a brief dismissal; a call-back can be even worse, puffing up one’s hopes only to have them come crashing down again after a second brush-off.
       Sebastian is far more crusty and able to ward off public criticism, but is even more pitiable in some senses since he is a jazz purist, determined to keep the dying art alive single-handedly. His dream is to open a true jazz club in a city that basically has little interest in such an art, which lands him in continued financial crises, which his loving sister, Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt) mocks. 
        The two central actors, like Astaire and Rodgers in Top Hat begin a relationship not in attraction but dismissal, Sebastien and Mia on the freeway, instead of a park, he honking and speeding around her car where she is desperately attempting to learn lines for an audition, salutes him with a finger. Indeed, the entire musical scene ("Another Day of Sun") is a kind of group audition, as suddenly dozens of young people trapped on the freeway, leave their automobiles to sing and dance. The long, uncut scene is a kind of wonder, if a bit frenetic and a display of the virtuosity of its own choreographic achievements. But if  recognized as simply a kind of amazing overture, the utter outrageousness of its achievement makes perfect sense.
       Later, like all musical heroes and heroines, the couple meets up again at a restaurant where Sebastian has been hired to play only Christmas songs. After playing the standards, he dares to take a single jazz break, playing the movie’s theme song (“Mia’s and Sebastian’s Theme”) which lures in the passing Mia, who is delighted by the music which gets Sebastian fired, he refusing to even hear of her passing appreciation. 
     They meet again at a Hollywood-like party, where he is now playing as keyboardist for a 1980’s-style pop-up band. This time Mia gets a bit of revenge when she asks the group to play the insufferable “I Ran (So Far Away),” after which she makes up a bit by asking him to walk her to her car, driving away, only to later sing their own version of the Astaire/Rodgers duo, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain” and from Fancy Free, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” this version devoted to the beautiful hues of the evening sky, “A Lovely Night.”
        Despite their mockery of one another, it is clear to both that they are perfect for each other, and since Mia is just been called back for an audition for a movie that bears some resemblance to Rebel without a Cause, Sebastian invites her to a local movie theater which is showing that film as a revival.
        However, she has forgotten that she made an appointment with her current, perfectly sweet boyfriend, Greg Earnest (Finn Wittrock), whose brother has just come to town, and cannot find a way out of that date. Greg and his brother are truly well-groomed and wealthy business men, talking about the best restaurants throughout the world and trashing the dirty movie theaters such as the one in which Mia had just agreed to spend the night with Sebastian; in anger and frustration, she rushes from the dinner in the expensive restaurant Jar, barely making the movie appointment with Sebastian.  
      Yet at the very point where Sal Mineo and James Dean attend a lecture at the Griffith Observatory, the projector jams and the frame is burned. She and Sebastian escape the movie theater as well, deciding to attend the real Observatory, wherein they float above the stars in “Planetarium,” a truly lovely and imaginative piece.
     By this time the audience and the characters know they are in love, and, at Sebastian’s suggestion Mia begins to write her own one-woman show while he takes a gig with an old friend, Keith (John Legend), who needs a pianist/keyboardist to bring in some money. The group is a great success, and Sebastian is finally able to make enough to actually open his own club; but when Mia hears the music she cannot even comprehend his “sell out” to Keith’s pop-music sound. Her own one-woman show is a flop, with only a few individuals attending, she overhearing some of them discussing the amateurism of the show. 
     When Sebastian surprises her, returning for a single night from his ongoing band tour, she and he fight, Mia being unable to understand his now seemingly permanent commitment to a kind of music he formerly disdained and his insensitivity to her own theater failure. These discussions are some of the very most poignant in the otherwise quite light-weight film, and the acting abilities of Gosling and Stone become quite apparent.
       Mia determines to return to her family home in Nevada, having been hurt one too many times, and Sebastian presumably returns to his touring, while trying to assimilate Mia’s criticisms, which eventually do change him.
       A phone call he receives reveals that an agent, having actually seen and liked Mia’s performance, wants her to audition for a movie to be shot in Paris; Sebastian, tracking Mia down, drives to Nevada to tell her the news, but she is less than appreciative, being now convinced that she has no real talent.
       Challenging her—just as she has him, to live up to her dreams—he returns with her to La La Land the next morning, reassuring her, somewhat beyond reason, that she will get the part. She does indeed nail the role, even though there is not yet any script. We never see any of her movie. But her trip to Paris, we know, will mean the end of their relationship, just as he had ended the intensity of their relationship with his touring with the pop-group.
       Five years later, she is a Hollywood star, and returns home to her husband and child—not Sebastian. They are attending a friend’s performance, but suffering the same kind of traffic jam we’ve seen during the first scene, she suggests to her husband that he pull off and go to a local neighborhood restaurant instead. On their way back to the car they encounter the sound of jazz from a new local club. He, evidently an aficionado himself, suggests they try it out. Mia immediately perceives its name “Seb’s,” with a piano note between the b and s, as her design for the club Sebastian once insisted needed to be called “Chick and Sticks,” representing the real roots of jazz.
      The club is crowded and the first set has been a popular one with the attendees. When Sebastian enters, now as emcee, returning to the piano for a short number, he spots Mia in the audience, and quietly and slowly replays the “Mia and Sebastian Theme.” During that lovely performance, Chazelle suddenly intrudes with a fantasy, obviously shared by both Mia and Sebastian, representing what might have been different: what if he had not ignored her original appreciation of his art, what if he had gone with her to Paris, what if….? It is a nearly endless fantasy that doesn’t really need to be. Like Geneviève and Guy in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, there is little doubt that their re-encounter is a deeply painful one, but also filled with understanding and good wishes for each of their futures.
     I didn’t mind Chezelle’s imaginative presentation of what might have been, but it is somehow intrusive and represents the American need for overstatement. The gentle smiles on the faces of Sebastian and Mia, after, leaving with her husband, she turns back to Sebastian, say far more than the musical interlude, and makes this self-conscious musical far more significant than it might otherwise have bee
      Yet one can only admire Chazelle for staying so true to his original vision. After he and composer Justin Hurwitz had written the work, having found early would-be producers, they were told they would have to abandon the first “audition” scene, would have to remake Sebastian into a rock musician, and definitely would have to abandon their melancholy ending. What might have resulted if these imaginative believers had truly given up their dreams to those Hollywood hacks would quite obviously been an empty film which surely would not have delighted the Sundance audiences and helped the filmmakers and actors to achieve major award status. Thank heaven the true believes actually do keep coming every day to Los Angeles—despite how difficult those dreams are to be realized.

Los Angeles, December 14, 2016

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