Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Blah La Land?: A Dispatch from the City of Stars

This past Sunday evening, La La Land hosted the Golden Globes. And the Golden Globes ceremony, sponsored by the Hollywood Foreign Press corps, returned the favor by making a big winner out of Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood musical, La La Land. Well before the envelopes were opened, it was clear that La La Land was high on everyone’s list. Even the opening of the TV broadcast saluted Chazelle’s work by mimicking the film’s famous Hollywood traffic jam, with M.C. Jimmy Fallon among those caught up in the musical action.

Personally, I’d been waiting to see La La Land for a long time. As a native Angeleno (born in Hollywood, yet!) as well as a huge fan of movie musicals, I was eager to watch a paean to my birthplace, sung and danced by talented young performers. And Chazelle’s Whiplash was such a genuinely thrilling piece of work that I had the highest hopes. I’d heard Chazelle speak beautifully about the raison d’être for movie musicals: the way they capture emotion through fantasy; the way they sidestep conventional movie realism with a boldness that’s positively avant-garde. Chazelle’s favorites were my favorites too: Fred and Ginger, Singin’ in the Rain, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. So, yes, I was excited.

When I finally went to see La La Land, I was accompanied by two family members. One of them is (fingers crossed) starting to make a name for himself as a writer of stage musicals. We all expected to be bowled over. And there was a lot to like. F’rintance, that exuberant opening on an L.A. freeway when commuters give up on getting where they’re going, instead bounding out of their cars to sing and dance to “Another Day of Sun.” And the in-jokes that capture the spirit (if not exactly the reality) of my home town: everyone drives a Prius; despite the season the weather never quite changes. And the bold colors all the women are wearing. And the romantic use made of one of my favorite places, the Griffith Park Observatory. And an astonishing final “dream ballet” sequence à la An American in Paris. And my personal favorite little scene, when a star-crossed Ryan Gosling -- serenading sunset on the Hermosa Beach pier -- sweeps a very average middle-aged lady into a waltz as her spouse looks on, bemused.

So why the “yes, but”? I realized, while watching the film, that the central story line just wasn’t quite enough to hold me. The tale of Mia and Sebastian -- she a would-be actress, he a jazz pianist too pure to stray into other musical styles – left me a bit cold. I was less bothered that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling don’t come off as trained singers and dancers. After all, both possess oodles of charm. But their on-again, off-again romance didn’t seem entirely worth rooting for. Not that all musicals are blessed with great screenplays. I know one of Chazelle’s big influences (and the source of that opening musical outburst) was Jacques Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, a very charming, very French musical in which all the romantic comings and goings finally amount to very little. Still I, and my two moviegoing companions, felt just a bit cheated by La La Land’s script deficiencies.

And yet . . . as I hear snippets of those musical numbers, like the lovely “City of Stars,” I start remembering all the parts of La La Land that gave me pleasure. And made me – come to think of it – want to jump on top of my Lexus and start dancing. Who could ask for anything more?

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