La La Land purports to be a good-natured, charming and delightful throwback musical. It begins with one of the most dazzling production numbers ever filmed, and tells what appears to be a sweet love story. Remember the big “Gotta Dance” from Singin’ in the Rain? Young hoofer tries to break in to the Broadway scene, has some success, faces temptation, nearly falls, finally breaks through and becomes a big star? Replace Broadway with Hollywood, replace the dancer with either an actress or a jazz pianist, and you’ve got the story of La La Land. Or A Star is Born, or any of the fifty other movies telling the same story. Set in LA, of course, where dreams come true. It’s a feel-good movie, a success story. Who doesn’t like to see nice kids realize their dreams?
I really don’t want to join the anti-La La Land backlash. There is one, of course, ever since La La Land won Best Picture at the Golden Globes, leading to all kinds of Oscar buzz. The opening deserves an Oscar all by itself, a spectacularly choreographed bit with people singing and dancing around and on top of cars stalled on a freeway. I take my hat off to the director who can find joy in the most joyless experience on earth–a California traffic jam. Well done, sir! And Damien Chazelle, the film’s writer/director, deserves all the accolades Hollywood can bestow. Fine.
I have a few quibbles with the rest of the movie. Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress, doing the LA audition scene, working at a coffee shop and hoping for a break. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist, something of a music purist, hoping and scrimping and saving towards the day that he’s able to open his own jazz club. They meet cute, sing and dance together, hope and work together, support each other. It’s a romance, kind of. Except it also isn’t. What keeps them together is the power of their dreams. They’re together, they seem to be in love, and are, but not with each other, it turns out. Instead, they’re in love with their dreams, and with each other’s dreams. They’re in love with the goal of making it come true. It’s a more complicated relationship than most A Star is Born musicals can sustain.
Stone and Gosling are terrific in the movie, giving smart, painful, intelligent performances that capture the nuances of their sort-of-in-love-but-not-really relationship. They’re so good, in fact, that they almost got me to ignore the fact that they can’t actually sing and dance all that brilliantly. I hate saying that, but it’s kind of true; they worked hard, they do fine, but they wouldn’t make call-backs for an off-Broadway show, based on their singing and dancing chops. I didn’t care, actually, because I liked the characters, but it leads to the other big problem in the movie–one my wife picked up on way before I did–the sound mixing. Emma Stone has a sweet voice, but it’s tiny, and much of the music is jazz. Brass. And you can’t always hear her, and you miss a lot of lyrics. Gosling’s voice is a bit more robust, but still; I couldn’t understand the words pretty consistently.
So it’s a musical where we . . . make allowances. And I’m willing to, in part because they’re not singer/dancers in the movie; that’s not what their characters do. And Gosling’s piano chops look sensational. (In fact, he essentially learned how to play the piano for the movie). They have a nice little moonlight number, just the two of them, which is delightful.
But the movie isn’t just a love story. It’s about success, and the sacrifices success requires, and what it means to ‘sell out.’ There’s one number in particular that captures both the movie’s strengths and (I don’t want to say weaknesses), and the complexities of its argument. Sebastian has an old friend, Keith (brilliantly played by John Legend), who he knows from school and who has a successful band. And needs a keyboard player. And Sebastian joins this band, the Echoes. And Mia goes to see them in concert, loyal girlfriend that she is. And it’s a very funny scene. The song begins with a big showy piano solo by Sebastian, and then the rest of the band joins him, and it’s great. And then, oh my gosh, the synth and the electronic dance vibe and the sexy backup dancers, and the song jumps the shark, goes off the rails, choose your own metaphor. And the crowd goes wild. All except for an appalled Mia.
Here’s what I think: John Legend’s character is the devil, representing the artistic compromises needed to achieve commercial success. And Sebastian is the purist-turned-self-loathing-cynic. The definition of tortured artist.
That’s a clichéd trope and I don’t think it’s true. The greatest musical successes in history were, as far as I can tell, universally interested in popular and commercial success, and yes, that absolutely includes Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk. You want to be good and you want to be successful. Both/and. And if Sebastian’s a jazz fanatic, he has to know that jazz music is a dialogue, not a monologue. And yes, creative tension can lead to personal tension; that’s why bands eventually break up. In the meantime, find your sound together.
As for Mia, here’s what I don’t buy; she’s doing the LA audition circuit, and getting nowhere. For six years. But we see her audition; she’s a good actress. I mean, of course Emma Stone is a good actress, but so is Mia, the character; we see no suggestion that she stinks. And she gets nothing? Not a call-back, nothing?
One of the big myths about the acting profession is that wanting to be an actor leaves you with two possible outcomes. Movie star or bum on the streets. That myth is the reason parents tend to discourage their kids from majoring in theatre. But I taught theatre at the college level for twenty kids, and I’ve known a lot of talented young people. And lots of them have gone to LA, and tried to break into the profession, and guess what? A lot of them have done just fine. If you’re willing to work hard, you can absolutely carve out a career. You may not become, well, Emma Stone. But you can get consistent work, and earn a living. I’ve known dozens of people who have done just that. I don’t believe that someone as talented as Mia, in the movie, would work that hard auditioning for six years and get absolutely nothing. It isn’t plausible to me; it doesn’t ring true.
La La Land has two endings, a fantasy ending and a reality ending. I much preferred the real one. And my quibbles with the movie are just that; quibbles. It’s a romantic, sweet-tempered movie. You absolutely must see it, but I also sort of hope it doesn’t win Best Picture. Though it certainly could. The opening really is that spectacular.