Things I’m thankful for today:
- Having seen this movie.
- Gaining a deeper appreciation of my marriage and how Diana and I found each other.
- Not being stressed at all today. I’m not sure if it was my latest head cold or if it truly was a cognitive shift, but I was very detached from any of the usual anxiety or worry while still being fully engaged with my work.
Last Friday, Diana and I had an overdue date night. We had shipped the kids off with Grandma and Grandpa earlier that day, but technically, we didn’t need to be childless until Saturday night. Diana’s Hartville Lady Eagles basketball team was being honored at the MSHSAA state tournament at Mizzou on Saturday for their part in the 1997 final four. Although we could have brought the kids along with us, we opted to go it alone. I’m sure they’d have loved marching out to center court with her at the Mizzou Arena, but the significance of the ceremony would have been lost on them and possibly marred long beforehand by the whining we’d have had to endure on the long drive up to Columbia.
So we milked the Stewart grandparents’ good graces and had Friday night all to ourselves. We ate a carb-laden dinner at Chili’s and headed over to the Hollywood 14 to see what we could see. We spent very little that evening, working off of gift cards that we’d been meaning to use perhaps for years. Diana had her heart set on La La Land, and I, being a philistine, half wished we’d be too late to catch the 8:00 showing and would need to settle for Logan or Kong: Skull Island instead. But the fates were with us. Not only were we on time—we got the best seats in the house. As we settled in, I chided myself for wanting to spring for the lesser entertainment (although I’ve heard Logan is outstanding). Not only would this movie please my romantic, West Side Story-loving, showtune-singing goddess, it would also (hopefully) warm the cockles of my own hopelessly romantic heart. I had heard nothing but good about this movie, paying no mind to the naysayers who don’t get musicals and say foolish things like, “People don’t sing like that in real life. You can’t just sing like that without knowing what words yer gonna’ sing!” We enlightened folks dispense with such foolish logic; the music is the characters’ way of expressing emotions that are too beautiful for mere dialogue. Anybody with any class knows this.
La La Land is a simple and familiar story. Mia (Emma Stone) is a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot in Hollywood with aspirations of becoming an actress. She goes to countless auditions and is usually ignored, as casting directors are more interested in their phones or their lunch orders than her best efforts. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is an aspiring jazz pianist who doesn’t seek fame so much as authenticity. He hopes to buy a former jazz club and restore it to its greatness, celebrating the great icons of the genre. Mia and Sebastian meet cute a couple of times. They grate on each other at first, but we know they must fall in love because the previews have shown as much and this is how things are supposed to go. Now that they’ve found each other, the film then explores the conflict of love vs. career—in choosing one, do we have to sacrifice the other, and are we prepared for what it will cost?
La La Land cannot be judged on what it’s about, but rather, how it’s about it (paraphrasing a standard rule of criticism from the late Roger Ebert), and this film is entirely about how it’s about it. First, it’s a musical—no surprise there, and not necessarily impressive in and of itself. Musical numbers can spring up anywhere. (Sausage Party, anyone?) Oh, but reader, this music is wonderful. It’s infectious, worming its way into your ears and never leaving, from the opening, effervescent ensemble number “It Happened at Dawn” to Mia’s somber and wrenching solo piece “Audition” and everything in between. Justin Hurwitz’s song-writing is masterful, and the score confidently returns to the themes again and again, sometimes joyfully, sometimes mournfully. It doesn’t get old. You want to live in this music. The dancing and cinematography work together to give us not only well-choreographed, lively dancing, but dancing that is shot well. Director Damien Chazelle films most of the numbers in long single takes, making his camera capture the dancers’ full bodies, head to toe. The opening shot of the movie is a tour de force, as drivers stuck in a freeway traffic jam beginning singing, the tempo picks up, then they emerge to dance quite acrobatically as the camera swoops in and around, above and underneath, not breaking the shot until well after the number is over and Mia and Sebastian have had their first false start. This ensemble number belies the intimacy of the rest of the movie, as we never really see so many people involved in one piece again. Chazelle has caught our attention with what he can do and is holding us rapt as he begins to tell the tale. From then on, I just gazed and took it all in.
The film is a love letter to all classic movie musicals while becoming one in its own right. It pays homage to classic Hollywood in general, both visually and verbally referring to Rebel Without a Cause, Bringing Up Baby, and Casablanca and hinting at the influence of West Side Story and An American in Paris. Chazelle knows his concept isn’t necessarily original and openly acknowledges his sources. This film does not exist in a vacuum, nor should it, if it is trying to inhabit a truly cinematic City of Angels. However, this film is original in its way. It was during “A Lovely Night,” the first duet of Mia and Sebastian as they stop to enjoy a view while she walks to her car, that I realized I was seeing something special. This isn’t Chicago, a brilliant adaptation of a brilliant musical. This is a brilliant musical number being created in real time and space before our very eyes, against a sunset that really was as beautiful as it looks. Chazelle’s camera makes you feel a participant to the magic and not just a spectator. While I’m sure Gosling had some dance experience on the Mickey Mouse Club, he’s not a dancer, nor is he really a jazz musician. Neither is Emma Stone a real dancer or singer, but we’re seeing these actors, having worked at the craft, apply it for the first time together, and there’s an excitement as they nail the steps. Stone and Gosling have displayed excellent chemistry before, in Crazy, Stupid Love, and that chemistry underlies their every moment together. I’ve seen other reviewers on IMDb unfairly contrast the two against Rodgers and Astaire, actors who could “really sing and dance,” and dismiss La La Land entirely out of hand on that basis. Well, we are no longer in the Ginger Rodgers/Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly/Ann Miller era, and shame on ourselves for writing La La Land off just because we can’t resurrect the dead stars of a golden era. If ever a film was made for those who complain that they “don’t make them like they used to,” this is it.
Even as it explores the potentially cynical theme of career vs. love, there’s not a cynical bone in the movie’s body. It hijacks our modern cynicism and presents a hopeful expectation of dreams coming true that, doggone it, all of us need to hear. And because Stone and Gosling aren’t Rodgers and Astaire, it makes the story more inspiring to know these actors entered into the method and emerged with something beautiful, and we can see the work they put into it, the sweat and the blisters, the joy as they hit their parts, much like Debbie Reynolds’ unbridled joy during the “Good Mornin’” number in Singing in the Rain. (She had only just learned the choreography and was not a dancer by trade.)
Another special, pivotal moment is Emma Stone’s “Audition” performance. I was reminded of Anne Hathaway’s brief but incredible turn in Les Miserables, and her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Much as Hathaway sang the heck out of that number, so does Stone. Again, it’s a single continuous shot. The camera sweeps around her, but it holds tight to her face, and you can almost see the moment Stone realizes this is the performance of her career. All of the agony of continuous rejection is captured in the catharsis of this moment as she gives it all she’s got, and there seems to be something biographical informing her performance. To paraphrase Meryl Streep’s Florence Foster Jenkins, the critics may say Emma Stone can’t sing (although she can), but no one can say that she didn’t sing.
One last thought—almost all the major players involved in this film were millennials. I’m on the older end of that generation, which means I exercise my right to deride it at will as self-serving and ridiculously stylized, with its hipster clothing and lumber- and metro-sexuality. It often seems to throw back to and embrace older styles for no reason other than to draw attention. It doesn’t create art; it wears it. Yet here is a throwback that does something relevant, both embracing classic musicals and contributing something deep and new to the genre. These millennials have created a transformative work of art. I’ve longed for something like this to change my perspective from its unfairly negative bias, to narrow my broad brush stroke. La La Land does that. There’s not a shred of cynical detachment about it. It is earnest and true while also being splendid visual and musical entertainment. I was so transported I couldn’t even talk about the movie until the next morning, at which point both Diana and I had plenty to say about it.