11 January 2017

First Impressions: La La Land

With excitement about this film peaking, or at least close to it (the fourth Sunday in February may be its apex), it's about time we talk about La La Land (2016). I actually just snuck this in on New Year's Eve 2016 and I'll admit that I'm still riding the high it gives off. There's definitely a mix of critical love and critical hate right now, which above all is a sign that this is a polarizing film that's probably doing something right to incite such passion. But let's get to it.

Director Damien Chazelle offers his sophomore major effort here after the widely loved Whiplash (2014), which made an Oscar winner out of longtime character actor J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller a household name. Sort of. It at least got him cast in Fantastic Four (2015) and War Dogs (2016). So, it didn't do much for Miles Teller, but all in all Whiplash is a superbly directed and edited film that's as precise as the percussion timing that fills its every brim.
Also the best contiguous magic hour scene ever. Also the
best encapsulating shot ever. Also this shot was in the
film for like a half second.

It's fun, then, that Chazelle would take the heavy musical influence of Whiplash and run with it full steam with La La Land. Contemporary original movie musicals are a fantastically rare breed, and after this one's success we might see a bit more. This has been Chazelle's passion project for a long time, spinning off (sort of) from his directorial debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), but put on hold while he made Whiplash. All that effort and passion shines here, although when you've completed your passion project by age 31, what more is there? Chazelle is one of the more exciting contemporary young directors to watch, because he's precise and meaningful without any shade of dour gloom or cynicism that typify some of our other great young artists.

La La Land works on a few separate levels at once, all derived from its title, so let's go into that, after which we assuredly need to discuss its relationship with Oscar. La La Land is first a nickname for Los Angeles, a metaphor for delusion, and a riff on singing. Let's break that down:

The Los Angeles Freeway Opening Number is as close to a perfect film intro we're going to get. It not only encapsulates an undersung culture of the city we're going to spend quite a bit of time in (the uh...traffic), but it transforms the awfulness into funness. That's the best summation of this film you're going to get. At once this is a love letter to the City of Angels, albeit a one-sided one that relishes all the hopes, dreams, sunshine, and love the city can provide. This is of course coupled with its share of rough patches and struggles to jump-start lives that have been spinning in limbo long enough to loose meaning. There are many films that honour Los Angeles (Sunset Blvd [1950], Chinatown [1974], Short Cuts [1993], L.A. Confidential [1997]...Friday [1995]. Wait, these are terrible. Los Angeles blows. The Fast and the Furious [2001]?), but none really glamourize it like this one does. If anything, that's reason alone this will win Best Picture. The voters uh, live in, uh, Los Angeles. And they've (mostly) all struggled like this before. It's the biggest no brainer in Oscar history.

Beyond the superficial positivity, though, there's some real heartfelt desperation on display here. At its core it's about these two people, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, played by whatever their actors' names are, finding their footing where the Ocean meets the Sand. It's pretty relatable for not only struggling actors and jazz club operators, but anyone who's dream has been deferred for whatever reason, whether it be a lack of opportunity, recognition, timing, or audience interest. Existing in la la land is existing in delusion, a Sisyphean exercise that becomes one's life without ever being able to look outside one's self enough to hop off the wheel. That's what a lot of this flick is about, and despite the cheery bright primary colours on display, there's a dark desperation entwined into everything Emma and Ryan do, which ends up fucking up their whole lives, along with the story we thought we were watching. SPOILERS forever from here on out.

In the ultimate tragedy, Emma and Ryan, the closest thing we have to a perfect on-screen Hollywood couple (after the immortal films Crazy, Stupid, Love [2011] and Gangster Squad [2013]), don't end up together at the end. We're treated to a sort of alternate reality, though, where we see how their lives would have ended up, had not John Legend come in and screw everything up. Fucking John Legend. The irony, of course, is that Gosling joined a band to get a steady gig because he wanted to be more stable for Stone, but his work just drove them apart. It's likely too that Gosling's persistence in getting Emma to take a big movie audition, which she nails, drove her away from him and into success, married to some anonymous Hollywood yuppie who by all accounts seems very nice. But can he pull off a scorpion jacket? By the end of the film they both have achieved their dreams but at the cost of each other. That, my friends, is the most accurate summation of Hollywood, and also life in general. This movie really has it all.

Finally, la-la refers to the general sing-song-y-ness of the film, and although the tracks are actually sparse (there's only like two or three good catchy ones), they fill this film and make it magical. "City of Stars" is a brilliant motif for their relationship, actually more towards their downturns than upturns (perhaps why it's with little irony Ryan keys it at the end). It revels in its musical logic, the breaking out into song as metaphor for feelings and scenes that doesn't really weird anyone out, particularly the talent scouts who suddenly find Emma Stone singing about her grandmother or whatever. She really should have been singing in every audition. C'mon girl. And yeah, neither Gosling nor Stone have great singing voices, but I tended not to care about that.

These two are in nearly every scene, which is also remarkable. So much of the film rests on their shoulders, and it'd be hard to find another dude and chick who are more in right now. In contrast to another film who tried to pull that off. There are almost no supporting characters, which makes this central duo even more potent.

La La Land pulled off a stunner at the Golden Globes this past weekend, winning seven total, and dominating everything. The end of the night still felt like Moonlight (2016)'s, thanks to its win for Best Drama, but it'll be interesting to see what happens at the Oscars when the categories combine. Emma and Ryan still feel like dark horses in their acting categories (truth be told, they're both great, but not really better than their competition this year). I'd be kind of shocked if Chazelle doesn't win for Screenplay and at least one, if not both Sound categories (Whiplash won for Mixing). Song is tougher, there's some potent ones out there this year, although more and more it feels like "City of Stars" is taking off. We'll have to see what the PGA and SAG feel about this one compared to Moonlight to get a better idea of how things end up when the dust settles.

This a film that I've loved more each day in the ten days since I saw it, even if it certainly deserves some of the knocks it's gotten. As a musical it doesn't really get better after its opening, and as production design goes, it doesn't really get better after "Someone in the Crowd." There's just so much hope and romance here, which is all smacked around by life itself - the bends and twists we can't anticipate that derail us and leave us with the biggest what ifs that offer us the choice to go forward with our accomplished dreams or the dare to live out events another way. It's heartbreaking and real in a world where the two mopey kids from Gangster Squad dance around the cosmos at the Griffith Observatory. Gotcha, suckas!

This is also roundabout Oscar bait. I don't think that when he was making this, Chazelle was thinking that in the past five years we've seen two other Hollywood-based films win Best Picture (The Artist [2011] and Argo [2012]), but it couldn't have hurt its greenlight as a major contender.

What do you think of La La Land? Can it go all the way? Do you give a shit about jazz? I definitely don't. Merry Christmas.

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