Wednesday, January 10, 2018

La La Land / ***1/2 (2016)

The ambitious “La La Land” opens with a marvelous scene on a congested freeway overpass, where nameless extras vacate their cars to share in the moment of a colorful musical interlude. Their choreographed zeal is carried by near-perfect technical aptitude that sees the act lifted into the reveries of aesthetical greatness; the camera persists across four minutes of song and dance in one seemingly unbroken shot, and the routine is mirrored by dancers on top of cars that seem to stretch beyond eyesight. What nerve does any modern film have evoking that sense of skill in a moment already overflowing with the heedless optimism of old Hollywood nostalgia? For Damien Chazelle, the director who helmed the brilliant “Whiplash,” that obsessive pitch for perfection is never far from the hearts of even the most good-natured (or spontaneous) entertainers. What they must go through to make their dance moves seem as if they defy gravity, the discipline they endure to find the right key for any number of songs that emerge from their eager lips, is anyone’s guess. Here is a movie with a fascinating duality of values, driven by the same lighthearted spirit that yielded the musicals of the golden age, with an underlying reverence for a craft where the maddening mechanics might have seemed more troublesome than the effort was worth.

Not that you would suspect as much based on the motivated faces of the leads. The film stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as Mia and Sebastian, two showbiz hopefuls who have emerged from their own corners of the world to find their voices the world of entertainment. She is an aspiring actress with a penchant for channeling to the old industry glamour, and he a pianist with a deep love for the great jazz musicians of the past. Auditions and low-rent gigs populate their professional aspirations, but a commonality emerges: neither is phased all that much by the constraints of their dreams, perhaps because they recognize the long hard road ahead as obligatory. Sometimes that emerges in enthusiasm, other times acceptance, other times frustration. Then, when the movie requires them to cross paths in a series of everyday coincidences, they discover more similarities than differences, and music supplies them the bond they have silently been searching for among impersonal crowds.

The force of their union, at first friendly and then romantic, is propelled by song-and-dance routines that evoke vintage Hollywood; they tap and waltz their way into glitzy fantasies that seem to persist just beyond the margins of their consciousness. My personal favorite sequence involves a trip they make to a planetarium, where they eventually dance weightlessly among the constellations. Then there is a terrific tap routine done on the hillside overlooking Los Angeles that recalls Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, minus a transparent facade; because their only exchanges thus far have usually involved abrasive banter, the joy of the moment is underlined by a compulsion to upstage one another. That becomes a difficult sentiment to modulate in a musical – how does a filmmaker emphasize the aggravation of his characters when they are trapped in a musical gimmick without emotional cues? – but Chazelle doesn’t allow the personas to become overwhelmed in a complicated backdrop. They are the pilots of this destiny, and the symmetry of their movements does not come at the cost of a genuine context.

The movie supplies them, furthermore, with tangible goals. Mia wants to be an actress but can rarely get call-backs for auditions; her closest encounters with fame involve serving coffee to entertainers on the Warner Bros. lot. Sebastian, meanwhile, is determined to open a jazz nightclub despite a declining public interest in the music, although that hardly undermines his eloquence on the subject; there is a precious moment where he argues a perfect case for the genre, describing it as an evolving laboratory where musicians play chords based on a spontaneous need (“look how he just hijacked the melody!”). If their dreams don’t always reflect their drive, that’s because the road to stardom is rarely kind and often meandering, especially when it comes to monetary compensation. At a certain point that inspires detours that will be all-too-familiar, including a subplot involving Sebastian taking a touring gig with a former colleague who has warped jazz into a populist movement. Why would he bother when it violates his own ideals, some may wonder? To ask that question is to lack an understanding between the difference of doing what you love and doing what is necessary to survive.

Chazelle doesn’t just ask those questions to inspire conventional conflict, either; he grounds them in a story that admires the na├»ve optimism of classic entertainment while understanding the challenge of ascending the hurdles they inspire. Among a laundry list of his most direct inspirations, “Singing in the Rain” may be the greatest. The dance routines – especially in the beginning – are choreographed with such focus that they recall the famous Gene Kelly, who moved with a flair that suggested he was exempt from gravitational forces. If there is something to be said about Gosling and Stone’s abilities, it’s that they are quick learners. One suspects they knew little about song or movement before signing onto the project. But they have put in countless hours of effort that pay off in scene after scene, dance after dance. They are magic against this enchanting backdrop. And if they strain along the way, it is not an admission of flaw – only a reflection of how hard work can and will take you to the peak of exhaustion. Both actors match that realization in performances that are likable and yet realistic, and the dialogue is not pitched at any superficial level.

If I was left with anything by the end of “La La Land” – at least beyond my respect and admiration for its technical accomplishment – it was a feeling that I had willingly opened myself to something that was hopeful and loving about the subjects it raises. Others were just as easy to give their hearts to the film as I was – clearly so, otherwise Chazelle would not have seen the shower of accolades that were bestowed on him over the course of the 2016 awards season (although that momentum was disrupted, now-famously, by his film wrongfully being named Best Picture at the Academy Awards when an envelope was read incorrectly). If an attempt was genuinely made to stifle that array of cheers, I suspect it was because the movie felt too “safe” against the political backdrop of the times, where stories about minorities and the struggles of immigrants carried a deeper impact. In many respects they were even better films. But a great entertainment should not be held accountable against the imbalance of the times, no matter how tapered the focus might seem in contrast. That suggests a reach beyond its aim. What “La La Land” desires, above anything else, is to inspire – to exude the encouragement and passion of its characters in a time when the arts have been undermined by shrinking school curriculums and erratic public funding. And if Sebastian and Mia mean something beyond their human behaviors, consider this: they share the same dreams as any number of important voices in this industry, who too came to the hills not just to seek fortune, but also say something profound.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama/Musical (US); 2016; Rated PG-13; Running Time: 128 Minutes

Ryan Gosling: Sebastian
Emma Stone: Mia
Callie Hernandez: Tracy
Jessica Rothe: Alexis
John Legend: Keith
Terry Walters: Linda

Produced by
Fred Berger, Michael Beugg, Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Harlacker, Jordan Horowitz, Mike Jackson, John Legend, Qiuyun Long, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill, Jasmine McGlade, Marc Platt, Bo Shen, Molly Smith, Ty Stiklorius and Shixing ZhouDirected and written by Damien Chazelle

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