Posted by Jay Livingston
The second movie I blogged about, nearly ten years ago (here), was “Words and Music,” a forgettable romantic comedy with several original songs and two big stars – Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. What I saw was a movie that was less about romance and more about career success. In fact, I wondered if maybe all American movies were about success.*
Yesterday, I saw “La La Land” and had the same reaction. The trailer, intentionally or not, makes this same point. It starts with the two stars – Emma Stone (Mia) and Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) – being hit with abrupt career setbacks. Mia is rejected at an audition after she speaks one line. Sebastian is fired from his job playing piano in a restaurant because he plays one song of his one in addition to the simplistic Christmas song arrangements on the owner’s playlist.
In that earlier post, I said, “In a comedy about the romantic relationship, the plot throws all sorts of conflicts and obstacles at the couple — rivals, misunderstandings, deceptions, diversions, etc. — obstacles which they eventually overcome.” That’s not where “La La Land” goes.
In “La La Land,” what most concerns the lovers is not their relationship but the other person’s career. Sebastian pushes Mia to pursue her passion to write and star in her own autobiographical play. Mia encourages Sebastian to pursue his passion – creating his own club as a home for mainstream jazz. In their most passionate scene, Mia tries to persuade him to be true to his dream rather than take a lucrative deal to go on the road with a pop-funk group headed by John Legend. Given these well-worn ideas, the dialogue is predictably predictable.
Fortunately, that’s not what the movie is really about. It’s not primarily concerned with telling you about Mia and Sebastian’s careers, or about their relationship. What “La La Land” wants to tell you about is movies – Hollywood musicals of the classical era. It’s full of the cinematic cliches (maybe tropes is the better term) of that period, and there are deliberate allusions to specific films. That’s what makes “La La Land” so enjoyable. It’s like pulling a school yearbook off the shelf and paging through it, recognizing old friends you haven’t seen in a long while and remembering what they were like. From the opening scene – a freeway traffic jam that becomes a huge production number – you’re hooked. Sebastian and Mia are not real people; they’re movie characters. So if their motives and feelings are familiar cliches, that’s part of the game.
It’s not just Hollywood musicals that inspire the film. The Jacques Demy musicals of the 1960s – “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” and “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort” with their bright colors – also get a large wave of the hand. At least one of the songs seemed like a deliberate attempt to emulate Michel Legrand. And the plot at the end strongly resembles that of “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” though with an added Hollywood-ending variation that may be the best thing in the film.
The wrong note, to my ear, was Sebastian’s piano playing. Big props to Gosling for learning to play the piano – that’s really him playing, they never used a piano double – but when he plays solo, it does not sound at all jazzy. He has a photo of Bill Evans that appears twice for a split second, but there’s no Evans in his sound, nor is there a hint of bebop-tradition pianists from Bud Powell on. The writer-director of the film, Damien Chazelle, has an obvious affinity for jazz. His previous film “Whiplash” centered on a young man trying to become a jazz drummer and had several moments of solid big band jazz. (For more on “Whiplash,” see this post from four years ago.) The combo scenes in “La La Land” do sound like real jazz, and it looked to me as though they too use real musicians playing, not actors pretending to play to the pre-recorded music we hear.
But to repeat, the movie is not about playing jazz or opening a club; it’s not about auditioning and acting writing a play; and it’s not about love. It’s about exactly what the title says – Hollywood.
* The first movie discussed in this blog (here) was clearly a critique of the American ideology of success – “Little Miss Sunshine.” It too seemed like an homage to a movie of the 1940s – “The Grapes of Wrath.”