Normally I would not write about a musical, but I saw La La Land with my son, Arun, a cinephile who writes about movies as well as politics, and walking out of the theatre, on the way home in the car, into the evening, we talked about the movie. I had seen it from the first scene onward as a drama and focused on the characters, on their relationship, and with a few exceptions, let the music and dance slip by as okay, some of it nice. Arun began liking the movie in its second half. The following day a friend phoned to tell me she and her husband had seen it and wondered why it was getting such good reviews. (Arun comments on the wildly different opinions people have of La La Land.) She compared it with Hollywood musicals from the past, and found it lacking, above all, in memorable songs. She listed the musicals she loved, including Carousel, which reminded me that in 1955 I had gone out of my way to see Oklahoma because Agnes de Mille had choreographed it. “De Mille revolutionized musical theatre (Broadway) by creating choreography which not only conveyed the emotional dimensions of the characters but enhanced the plot. Her choreography, as a reflection of her awareness of acting, reflected the angst and turmoil of the characters instead of simply focusing on a dancer’s physical technique.” In those years I followed modern dance and Martha Graham. De Mille and Graham were friends.
Both movie music and La La Land type Hollywood nostalgia are beyond my ken. I grew up with only junk music in my environment and although I loved to dance, paid little attention to the music (until the Beatles). Not until the 1950s, when I was in my twenties, did I think of movies as anything other than a way to pass the time, and then, from the mid-60s to late ’90s lived as an expatriate, with concerns other than cinema. Over the years I saw Hollywood musicals but didn’t pay attention to them. They were song and dance performed by singers and dancers, the plot lines were simple and the characters single-dimensional, remaining the same persons at the end as they were at the beginning. There was nothing for me to analyze. Still, I loved On the Town (1949), the adventures of sailors on leave in New York City. In West Side Story (1961), my favorite, which I’ve seen many times, the cast of characters is larger and more complex. I can describe the two sides, the Jets and the Sharks, and how the Romeo and Juliet theme is translated into the New York setting, love the marvelous dancing and the significant, truthful lyrics of the songs, but everyone already knows the story.
La La Land, unlike the usual Hollywood musical, is character driven and actors, not dancers or singers, play the main characters. For thinking about this musical, I read articles on the Fred Astaire musicals I missed and on the musicals I’ve seen. Additionally, I’ve been watching dance videos on-line. (again and again of Mikhail Baryshnikov in White Nights. oh my)
I like this review but disagree with — “Emma Stone, in a luminous performance, is by turns plucky, furious, hopeful, distraught, and devoted, and when she sings the wistful ballad “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” she is every inch a star.” Obviously, this is the consensus but it escapes me.
I read that Damien Chazelle, director of La La Land, was influenced by The Umbellas of Cherbourg. Like Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, it is a musical in which actors, not professional singers and dancers, sing and dance. I didn’t like The Umbrellas… at all. Won’t bother with the Allen movie.
But this does remind me of Guys and Dolls, back in the 1950s, and of Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons acting the lyrics, singing in their pleasing natural voices. Nothing in La La Land matches them or comes even close. (A review from 2013 is here) But Ryan Gosling is graceful, like Brando, and I enjoyed watching him in the nicely choreographed dance in the sunset. I’ve watched a part of it since, several times, on video. I was enchanted by the Griffith Observatory scene, by the grand building and by the couple in a ballroom dance, she in a long white gown, floating up into the planetary dome.
The opening scene of La La Land is fun and it lets us know we are in Los Angeles. I noticed that neither Mia (Emma Stone) nor Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) were out there dancing. Quite the opposite. Both remain seated in their cars, detached from the action and happen to aim their general annoyance at one another. Sebastian drives a convertible and is conspicuously different. Mia’s car is ordinary enough that I can’t identify it. Early scenes establish them both as serious artists. Mia shares living quarters and is friendly with other aspiring actresses but she keeps herself a bit separate from them. Posters on the wall of her bedroom are of Ingrid Bergman. It seems that Sebastian shares an apartment with his sister but she leaves, exasperated by his obsessive, single-minded, purist approach to jazz. From this review, “Consider the scene in which Sebastian listens to a jazz record and tries to reproduce the pianist’s sound. It’s not imitation for imitation’s sake. He’s trying to get inside the head of an artist he loves. … ”
Both Mia and Sebastian are struggling to make a living and make it in their adored Hollywood (and in the beautifully photographed L.A. they wander through), she as an actress and he to own a nightclub where he can play and promote his beloved jazz. In early scenes it is established that both are beset with disappointing responses to their art, and in cleverly demonstrated sequences they are shown coming to appreciate and support one another as artists, all the while falling in love.
To compensate for my lack of attention to songs in the movie, I recommend this analysis of the plot. According to Nate Sloan, a musicologist, the song “City of Stars” collapses the film’s entire plot into 2.5 minutes. It is the movie in microcosm, using techniques borrowed from old Hollywood and from Romantic opera. About halfway through the film, jazz pianist Sebastian and aspiring actress Mia sing “City of Stars” and it establishes the bond between them. “La La Land’s narrative hinges on whether its lovestruck Angelenos will choose each other over their respective ambitions. This central question — of whether head-over-heels romance can be reconciled with the individualistic drive needed to succeed in Hollywood — runs through the lyrics of “City of Stars.” (Let it be said that individualist drive is required for top-of-the-field success in most professions/industries.)
La La Land’s answer to this central question is the first of its sort I’ve seen in a Hollywood movie. It’s a story of the relationship between a young woman and young man in different professional worlds, both talented and ambitious, who fall in love, and although Sebastian is the more giving of the two, respect the other’s work and support the other’s career. Gradually, however, the demands of pursuing career brings on discord and they come to an impasse that is implied rather than shown. Both reach success, but not together. And that is the drama, interpreted differently by every viewer of the film.
La La Land’s leading lady is certainly different. Mia is unapologetically career oriented, ambitious and she succeeds. Plus, she is presented as a likeable person. In the few movies I know of with a career-oriented and professionally successful woman, the husband is a flawed individual, as in Funny Girl (1968) and A Star Is Born (1954). I liked the Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy movies because in them she is a successful professional in a good marriage with an equally successful husband, but even there he asserts his dominance, and they have no children. One of their movies, Woman of the Year (1942) is about an international affairs correspondent who receives an award as “America’s Outstanding Woman of the Year.” Her husband is a sports writer, and they “encounter problems as a result of her unflinching commitment to her work.” The movie denouement has her giving up her professional ambition and happily accepting the humble role of traditional wife. The movie was financially successful, won awards for Hepburn and was made into a Broadway play. I wonder what Hepburn’s private thoughts were of it all. Other than for the money earned, they could not have been positive. I could do comments on movie versions of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, but – at another time.
I recommend the on-line discussion here of “The End of La La Land Explained.” The Comments are wonderful, some of them truly insightful. Most seem to be from young people who were caught up in the romance of the story. My perspective is different; it’s that of a woman in her late eighties with the particular, unusual history described throughout this blog. I viewed Mia and Sebastian as functioning in two different worlds and reaching across them to keep their love for one another alive. She is trying to work in an industry where job descriptions are fuzzy and hiring is done by heartless individuals for whom the applicant is invisible as a person. Other actors do not give her camaraderie, certainly not support. Sebastian wants only to play jazz piano and make a living doing it. After a number of frustrating gigs, he has the good fortune of a fellow jazz musician, Keith, (R&B star John Legend) seeking him out and providing him with work that compromises him only a little in his art. Scenes of Sebastian after that are of him in his natural milieu, moving in a small society of people like himself who clearly understand and appreciate him.
Suddenly, we are presented with Mia as an internationally famous actor who has a home, a small child, a nanny to help her with motherly responsibilities and a husband who is, I assume, from her own world and can adjust his schedule to hers. She is in a happy marriage. This is followed by a dreamy fantasy vision of her and Sebastian together, both successful, married, with a child, of what might have been. We see that Sebastian has his jazz club but learn nothing of his personal life. And why should we? Most likely, along with success in a business compatible with his art, he has a wife who gives him children and a personal life. Mia had to chose the right husband for her to have it all. Memories of their time together and of the love they felt for one another will always be with them.
In the review by Manohla Dargis, one with great photographs: “In his study “Pursuits of Happiness,” (the philosopher) Stanley Cavell writes that certain screwball films of the 1930s and ’40s involve the creation of a new woman or what he calls “a new creation of the human.” He sees these films as “parables of a phase of the development of consciousness at which the struggle is for the reciprocity or equality of consciousness between a woman and a man,” which is a nice way to describe “Top Hat” and the rather different “La La Land.”
Ah yes. The ancient dream of Abelard and Heloise — It may be more readily accommodated today than ever before but rarely for a lifetime.
Any woman with career ambitions or who is already in a career will find these articles interesting.
I rented and watched Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) and will watch his Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009). Whiplash is excellent but I have enough problems with it that I’ll discuss it separately, in another essay.