La La Land: A Movie For the Dreamer In All of Us.
Ever since Judy Garland tapped her sparkly red heels three times and said, “there’s no place like home,” or Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka sang, “Come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination,” I’ve been hooked on musical film. Call me stereotypical, but growing up, my childhood best friend and I wrote, directed, produced and starred in our own musicals—imagining ourselves as a dynamic duo like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. We’d study the choreography, plot lines, and songs of iconic films like Singing In the Rain, Funny Face and The Sound of Music, as if they were mathematical equations needing to be solved for “x.” We were enamored by the simplistic “boy meets girl” stories set in idyllic places where the guaranteed happy endings were always elevated by song and dance. But it wasn’t all zing, zing, zing went the trolley and chitty, chitty, bang bang! Even at that young age, we appreciated the social and historic commentary films like West Side Story and Cabaret were thematically addressing, and felt the emotional impact of their messages—the type of emotion that builds with such intensity one can’t help but burst into song about it! But as the 1950s film industry began to change and the demand for more realistic representations of human life increased, musical cinema faded away. People no longer needed to take their lessons with a “spoon full of sugar.” They were happy to digest their reality without the aperitif of song and dance.
For those of us nostalgic for the antiquated musical film, over the last 15 to 20 years (with visionaries like Rob Marshall to thank) we’ve been satiated by movies such as Chicago, Les Miserables and Into the Woods where the glamour and magic of yesterday’s musical traditions are expertly balanced with realistic and contemporary methods of film making. These movies have helped to resurrect the beloved musical film proving that reality with the right amount of song and dance sprinkled in can still draw people to the box office. In my opinion, the latest and greatest installment in this line of reimagined musical story telling—the future of musical film is La La Land.
If you were blown away by the artistic genius of writer/director Damien Chazelle present in his Oscar winning film Whiplash, prepare to be floored once again. First and foremost without giving anything away, this is a love letter to Los Angeles. It’s as if La La Land is designed to elicit a feeling of camaraderie between Los Angelenos and our shared experiences of living in this city. Throughout the movie I could see other viewers nodding their heads and chuckling when the next typical “LA” thing would happen on screen. The movie vacillates between the pink rosy gee-golly-willikers of romantic musicals that takes the audience on a lovely ride through song and dance only to burst their bubble with present day reminders of reality like an iPhone ringtone, getting stuck in traffic or someone asking for a gluten-free pastry. But for all of the common annoyances associated with Los Angeles, there were just as many iconic places featured in the film like the Griffith Park Observatory or the LA Arts District. I even got an education about establishments I didn’t know—ones that pay homage to a time when Los Angeles was at the height of its Hollywood era—these historic hangouts, clubs and restaurants frequented by Hollywood icons hiding in plain sight that made Los Angeles the tourist destination that it is today.
La La Land’s visually stunning cinematography, with Fosse meets Ballroom energetic choreography, and catchy songs, capture the true essence of musical film. The movie straddles the line between fantasy and reality in a way that serves and furthers the storyline, which made it impossible for me not to emotionally invest. Thanks to superlative performances by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, the characters felt multidimensional and full of life with nuanced emotional depth. On one hand La la Land presents a world that exists on a pink cloud amongst the stars and then in an instant drops the audience back into a harsh reality where Gosling and Stone struggle with disappointment, conflict and feelings of inadequacy.
Following ones dreams is a major theme in the movie. No matter what profession one has chosen for his or her life, achieving success is challenging for everyone. Los Angeles is filled with artists of varying disciplines that have no guarantee of success but still pursue their dreams with persistence and courage. Stone’s character is an actress and Gosling’s character is a musician. Without a road map the two characters navigate the unforgiving realities of trying to “make it” in Hollywood. Throughout the film I kept being reminded of one of my favorite poems I learned as a child called Dreams by Langston Hughes.
With phenomenal accuracy Chazelle shares the struggle that comes with making a dream come true, holding fast to that dream, the things one ends up sacrificing in service of that dream and how those things can contradict. Ultimately the audience gets to witness two people who have separate dreams and how their journeys in making their dreams come true intersect and how they diverge and what that all costs in the end.
Jazz is at the center of this film. The quest to keep it alive and relevant becomes a metaphoric parallel to the survival of musical cinema. Although some might find it controversial to see Gosling (a white man) as the “savior” of Jazz, the deeper point that is driven home by John Legend’s character is the importance of not falling into the traps of nostalgia to the point where one obstructs the evolution of an art form. It is important to show reverence for the traditions that have become the foundation for a particular art form like Jazz, but it is equally important to let the art form reinvent itself so that it doesn’t die—so that it has the opportunity to reach a larger audience and bring joy to those ignorant of its significance. This is exactly what La La Land provides a 2017 audience—an opportunity to rethink what a musical film is supposed to be, allowing the definition to expand and take on a new form. Rigidly holding on to the past isn’t the best way for rich traditions to be preserved. In the case of Jazz, which is synonymous with improvisation, the real magic lives in the moment and how the artist learns the rules in order to break them—thus putting their own spin on what came before them.
I believe this is what Chazelle has achieved in the realm of musical film and why La La Land is one of my favorites films of the year. According to the LA Times, the film made history last night earning 7 Golden Globes—the most that any single film has ever been awarded at the Globes.
La La Land reminds us to never give up on our dreams—that life can be a musical with all its pink-rosy wonder if we learn to look for it and let it happen. It may not turn out the way we envision, but the journey is well worth taking. Living one’s dream becomes an essential part of life. I am reminded of another appropriate Langston Hughes poem (What Happens To A Dream Deferred?) that ponders the alternative.