La La Land and the eternal question

La La Land is a musical but different. How?

One part of the equation is us, the way we were different in 2016. And I suspect we’ll hear a great deal about how we have become different for 2017.

It’s not Singin’ in the Rain, the musical often cited as the best film musical ever made, one of the films that the cast reputedly watched in preparation for their work on this film, and suddenly with the passing of Debbie Reynolds, a work that feels as though it’s from another era, almost another planet.

The operative question in dreaming big is really the same question whether asked by a wide-eyed child or a cynic. “Are happy endings possible?”

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Golden Globe nominee Damien Chazelle

The question was answered differently by the film-makers of 1952 than those of our current time, just as it’s answered differently by viewers of every era. For LLL that means writer-director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz.

One of the recurring images in the film that is introduced by a song but also touched upon repeatedly in the art direction is the idea of faces in the crowd. It will be a matter of discussion as to whether one creates art with that audience in mind or not, as one character more or less says it doesn’t matter whether there’s an audience. LLL offers answers. Sometimes we’re looking at individuals in a crowd, camera dollying along to see each person in a traffic jam complete with a snippet of the music in each little micro-world. Sometimes we’re looking out through the eyes of the performer or barista at the listeners who may or may not be attentive, may or may not care what’s being done. There’s a wall that we see at one point painted with those faces, that will later be overlaid by a huge close-up image of one of the leads who has become a big star: but to tell you more would be a spoiler, so I will try to avoid giving too much away. The plot is built around this ongoing conversation, where each is changed / helped by the other person in seeing past their ideals and finding a new way.

The first musical number signals a very specialized understanding of what music is for and what it signifies. We’re on a jammed freeway in Los Angeles, bumper to bumper and stopped dead. The impossible happens, which in a musical isn’t so unexpected. When you’re stuck in traffic it may already feel like a miracle just getting to your destination. Setting aside diegetic performance, those moments when someone is portraying a live performance of some sort (whether it’s whistling softly to themself or playing an instrument), it’s already miraculous that people sing and dance on film, whether or not instruments are available to make music.

That miracle is the signal in LLL. But this time it’s very much in your face. I know that I was taken aback because it seemed unmotivated. Why would a bunch of people just start singing? And then it came to me that these people –some thin some not so thin and even some actually fat like real people—were expressing their fantasies & their dreams, while acting out in this dream factory, which is how we understand L.A. Stuck on a highway in Los Angeles, going nowhere while trying to get somewhere, the number makes perfect sense. And so the music in this film works that way, signalling a very different discourse. The traditional understanding of musical numbers is that they’re extensions of what’s already happening, so that we sing or dance when words are no longer enough, as we expand the verbal conversation via the emotions available via movement and song. This is a bit different, a more radical understanding. Yes there are characters in the film playing musicians, and so for them the regular diegetic performance of music isn’t an expression of fantasy. But nonetheless we get several moments when the music is taking us out of normal reality into dream / fantasy space.  It’s been done before –thinking for example of the “gotta dance” number in Singin’ in the Rain —but usually there are big signals that we’re in a dream space.  For LLL it’s simply the music. 

Speaking of miracles, Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling surmount the big hurdle: that we can accept them singing and dancing, even watching Gosling play the piano. As this is their third pairing, I can’t help wondering if we’ve seen the birth of a new Fred & Ginger, especially if studios decide that we need these uplifting stories to distract us from the misery of our lives. Yet a big part of the drama is built around the difference between their approaches. Where Gosling seems smooth and confident, Stone’s presentation has a method-acting authenticity to it, often a small squeaky voice (so different from the triple-threat girls with whom she lives & parties) that in spite of itself and in wonderful contrast feels so genuine. As the key scene unfolds, when her audition has to find its way, she finds her voice and sings with a bigger sound and greater confidence.

The last huge sequence of the film offers an answer to that big question about happy endings. I may see it again in a theatre, but when it’s available to me at home I know I’ll be seeing it again and again, thinking about that eternal question.

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