La La Land: You Should See It
You should see La La Land. You should see it on the big screen. As soon as the credits rolled, I said aloud, that film was better than I thought it was going to be. The reason you should see it is not because it is a musical. The reviews I have read or heard, like Anthony Lane’s in the New Yorker and the discussion of the movie on Slate’s Culture Podcast, talk about the movie as if it’s sole contribution is in being a musical. I would say the musical element is both central to the film’s themes and incidental to what makes the film worth seeing.
It’s central because the film is about being overcome by one’s art in many senses. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is overcome in the sense that he can’t but help his love for jazz. But he’s also overcome in the sense that material demands force him to compromise his art. Mia is overcome in the sense that her efforts to do her art wear her down. Mia and Sebastian also seem overcome by the art of the other, like the artfulness of the other leads them to want to break into song.
On the Slate Culture podcast they talk of the problem of making the bursting into song element seem unobtrusive. “Chicago” fails at that, Julia Turner says, but this film succeeds. I think central to the theme of the film is how art intrudes or fades into the background, so the fact that it is a musical both matters in that effort and doesn’t matter at all. One asks in the opening scene and in the closing scene whether this is artifice or not. The opening scene is a dance number in a traffic jam. Right away you are made to realize that this film is a musical, and yet by the middle of the film you are made to forget. Not unlike the way that films operate by having the fact that we are watching a film recede. This parallel between the way that musical nature of the film obtrudes and fades and the film nature of the film obtrudes and returns raises the question of what it means we stop thinking of art as art, to stop experiencing art as art. It raises the question of how art can be life and life art in ways that can affirm or deceive.
It’s true that the movie does an amazing job of bringing musicals up to date. Gone are the affected tones or the witty repartee, which Chicago still employed. Here to stay are the curses and colloquialisms. And at the same time, it took me a while to figure out when it was set. The opening number includes classic dance moves and skateboarding and parkour. Women wear dresses and men wear suits in classic shapes that seem far too formal for the contemporary moment. These elements too make the musical nature of the film a question early on in a way that seems to fade when the story gets underway. There are moments when it seems absolutely necessary that the actor break into song and all the traditions of the musical are put into play — like the spotlight that singles out one character and puts everyone else in the dark, a move that director Damien Chazelle gets a lot of mileage out of.
The reality and appearances of Hollywood are no less in question in this film, whose name, “La La Land,” invokes that sense of being disconnected from reality. It isn’t just film that presents as real what is not, it’s Hollywood that does. The deception is a theme early on in the film when we learn that Sebastian was cheated out of a stake in some project. There’s also the particularly Hollywood deception of those who try to present themselves as more important than they are, like the guy with the wonderful line about how he’s really good at “world building.” That’s Hollywood: it’s good at world building, but you wouldn’t want to make a life with it. Making a life with someone in Hollywood turns out to be almost impossible.