‘La La Land’ Holds Up

by Simon Williams on December 15, 2016

in Print Reviews,Reviews

I first saw Damien Chazelle’s La La Land about a month ago. Normally I write my reviews immediately after seeing the film, and some of my most positive reviews have reflected that. I have a tendency to be far more glowing with my reviews of films in the moments after the picture ends, and I temper my opinion quite a lot afterwards, which becomes really odd at the posting later on. Not to name any certain reviews, but perhaps some of my more euphoric articles have suffered from a bit of, uh… hyperbole. So, here with La La Land, I held it off quite a bit due to life in general, so perhaps the month that has passed will have allowed me to avoid such pitfalls. So after a month how does it hold up?

[Rock Fist Way Up]

Well wouldja look at that.

For the, maybe, dozen of you unaware, La La Land is director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his brilliant film Whiplash, one of my favorite American films of the decade. It’s an homage to the American Musicals of the 1950s of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire (with other stuff in there but we’ll get to that), starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. It is also a play and exploration of the eponymous “La La Land” in question, Los Angeles.

La La Land, in the month since I’ve seen it, has attained a certain level of … excitement. The critical community has wholeheartedly embraced it, industry people love it, and in the few cities it went out to in limited release have been seeing packed theaters for the thing. Within my small corner of the critical community, however, the reaction has been far more tempered. Not naming any names, but many of my own favorite critics (including my dear compatriots here on this joyous little website) have become the vocal minority standing up against the onslaught of praise for this film. “It’s an empty tribute to an era these people never lived in.” “The performers are nowhere near the talent of the original stars of the 50s and 60s.”

Normally I stand proud with these people as the last clan of cynics strong enough to not shut our traps, but for the life of my I cannot bring myself to do so, because I love the hell out of La La Land.

La La Land is a musical, and not a modern, sleek cynical one either. It’s a loud, silly, kinda dorky musical with the bright colors and huge emotions that are usually seen as negatives of the genre. One would expect the dissenting voices to be those of the anti-musical brigade but no, for the most part this film is getting criticized by those who are big fans of Singin’ in the Rain and West Side Story. The film is a loving homage to an era and genre that those making the film had no immediate relationship with them in the same way those raised with the genre would. It’s enraptured in cinephilia, specifically the kind of one raised on VHS and geeky parents. It is, in short, a film made by a bunch of Theater Kids. Not necessarily the literal kind, but definitely the abstracted concept of “Theater Kid”; romantic, exuberant, genuine and excitable to a fault. They also idolize and emulate the talents of those who came before, often without the ability to fully recreate said talents themselves.

Ryan Gosling isn’t as good a singer or dancer as Fred Astaire. He’s not supposed to be. The music in a musical is meant as a metaphor, and here the singing and dancing is no different. These characters are not the genuine article, masters of song and dance, raised in Vaudeville and family performances, these are passionate geeks who occasionally let their cynicism slip and embrace the magic of pure, unadulterated romanticism. Why do they dance? Because that’s the best way to express what they are feeling. How do they know this? Because they saw it in the movies. This is the same thing going on with Woody Allen’s musical attempt in Everybody Says I Love You, where huge 50s style song and dance numbers are being performed by non-singers. Just because you’re not Gene Kelly doesn’t mean you don’t deserve the same high-flying emotions and enormous musical set pieces, after all. Speaking of Woody Allen…

Woody Allen followed up his series of late 70s masterpieces (Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan) with an homage to Federico Fellini called Stardust Memories. Critics hated it. The homage was too blatant and direct for them, and to this day it’s one of Woody’s most divisive films. It was a reference, clear and direct, and many could not get past the idea that Woody’s film could not be greater than the work of Fellini. They couldn’t see the film for the wonder it is.

Except the musicals of the Golden Age aren’t the only films this thing has thrown into its melting pot. Also present are those of great French filmmaker Jacques Demy, who did a similar form of Postmodern play with the genre in the sixties (even collaborating with Kelly himself in The Young Girls of Rochefort, my personal favorite of the lot). Except Demy was giving the common man a musical. Chazelle’s world is not one where the masses love the Hollywood musical, where that was the case with in Demy’s day. It means something different. Also thrown into the pot are the musings of Quentin Tarantino, where the trappings of genre are used to extenuate the auras of individual characters and subplots, drawing out the inherent subtexts of said genres to be used as text within the new works. Frequent direct references abound to other Hollywood classics, due to Emma Stone’s Mia. Same to classic jazz, Ryan Gosling’s Seb being too passionate a jazz traditionalist to accept success today. These references aren’t just there to color the script and make the creators seem oh so cultured. They’re there because these people are the same as the characters. Damien Chazelle is just as much a film geek as Tarantino, it’s just for dorkier films.

Someday I want to talk about this film in considerably more detail than I can here but I will finish up my point here. La La Land is a film about being a dork. It’s not even subtext really, it’s the underlying idea of the film. Both our protagonists are cynical at the start of the film, who give into the same optimism that the genre forces upon them. They don’t sing when mad, they sing when they have surrendered themselves to their own romanticism.

The film opens on a glorious, over-the-top group dance sequence on the turn-off from the 105 to the 110 in Los Angeles, with the entire highway backed up with people who all surrender themselves to the optimism. Our protagonists take some prodding, but eventually they give in and have the same euphoric experience as the rest of them. Emma Stone’s Mia is a consummate aficionado of Old Hollywood, and at her highest highs her world is bold planes of color and Rembrandt lighting. Ryan Gosling’s Seb is a jazzbo of the highest order, and when he is most joyous is when he reaches the same, high-energy mania and unrealistic singularity of Andrew Neiman in Whiplash.

A month later, I still love La La Land. I love it with the same part of myself that loves Chance the Rapper and the Vlogbrothers. I love it with the same part of myself that marathons whole seasons of sitcoms back-to-back. I love it with the same part of me that still owns my high-school theater production t-shirts and ritualistically rereads The Hobbit every year. I love it with the same part of me that has been listening to the Soundtrack album incessantly ever since it was released. Damien Chazelle’s passion is infectious, and I am so happy his breakthrough was not a fluke. After seeing Whiplash, I ran home and asked my roommate to punch me in the face. After seeing La La Land, I drove home and attempted to sweep my girlfriend off her feet. It’s dizzying and beautiful and funny and exciting. It’s earned every inch of real Technicolor celluloid it was shot on and commits wholeheartedly to a high-wire act between clever critique and unashamed genre exercise. Don’t like it? Fine, okay, whatever but I will fight for this one. It’s not the flawed, drunken monologue of The Revenant, it’s not the awkward, overwrought potential of Interstellar. This is a cut above. Even a month later, La La Land is a joy and a marvel, and easily one of my favorite films of the year.

Come at me.

Simon Williams

Simon Williams is a media critic and filmmaker originally from Columbus Ohio. He makes short films about sad people who don’t speak their minds because he himself is a sad person who does not have that issue.

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