Monday, February 27, 2017

Lights Out for “La La Land”

Well, I’ve just finished watching the most screwed-up Oscar broadcast in history. I’m frustrated and baffled . . . and how else is a viewer supposed to feel when a Best Picture winner is announced and then (mid-acceptance speech) the Oscar is rescinded?  Not that the eventual winner, Moonlight, is unworthy. Frankly, I’d like to watch this film again, because -- though I recognized some fine performances -- I wasn’t among those who fell in love with the total package. But in any case I was rooting for La La Land, for the honor of my hometown, and for the revival of musicals on the silver screen.

I’ve been thinking about musicals a lot since I finished reading a highly touted new novel by the British author Zadie Smith. Swing Time begins with two little mixed-race London girls who are wild about dance. Their passion is fueled by the hours they’ve spent in front of the telly, watching the great old musicals. One that figures prominently in the narrator’s recollection is Swing Time, in which (in a number called “Bojangles of Harlem”) Fred Astaire dances elegantly with three shadow-images of himself, all of them done up in blackface in tribute to Bill Robinson and the great black tap dancers of the era. And when watching something called Ali Baba Goes to Town the narrator is surprised to spot an actual African-American featured dancer, Jeni Le Gon (1916-2012), whose unusual legacy becomes part of the plot. As a more recent inspiration, Michael Jackson appears too, via his Thriller music video. 

In the course of the story, the two little girls grow up. One becomes a professional dancer, with some chorus-line successes on the London stage (she’s Hot Box cutie #1 in a revival of Guys and Dolls) until life takes its toll. The narrator, smarter and less agile, goes the university route. Unexpectedly, she becomes the personal assistant to a world-famous Australian singer-dancer whose character and blonde beauty obviously borrow from such gifted self-promoters as Madonna and Lady Gaga. The celebrity becomes temporarily infatuated with Africa, swooping down from her heights to play at philanthropy while taking on some new dance styles, a new lover, and an adopted baby girl. It’s cultural appropriation to the nth degree, and the playing out of this story is set against those of the narrator’s social activist mother and her childhood friend.  There’s much in this novel that’s grim and sad, but the joy of dance remains, both in the rituals of an African village and in a final image of a struggling little family group dancing on the balcony of a London tenement flat.

It was joy I wanted on Oscar night, and (despite some overly silly stuff from host Jimmy Kimmel) I was happy to see dance held in a place of honor. Justin Timberlake and his crew can dance down my aisles any day. There was lovely, magical dancing in the Moana number for which Lin-Manuel Miranda did not become an EGOT. And of course “City of Stars” from La La Land got the Astaire-Rogers treatment it deserved. But I’d like to dance some flamenco on the heads of Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, or those important-looking guys with the suits and briefcases from Pricewaterhouse-Coopers . . . whoever was responsible for the wrong name being read at what should have been the evening’s high point. But, come to think of it, La La Land is about melancholy as well as joy, and so maybe its fate is appropriate. I guess we should shrug our shoulders, face the music, and dance.

Postscript: The latest word is that there are two identical sets of Price-Waterhouse envelopes, one on each side of the stage. In the confusion of a complicated set change, Beatty was handed the wrong envelope, was confused by what he read (Emma Stone, La La Land) but passed the buck to Dunaway. So lots of blame to go around. 

Fred Astaire as "Bojangles of Harlem," Swing Time

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