June 3, 2017
I admittedly came into this film with low expectaions, prepared to suspend the vivid memories of musicals that have moved me; or the great exponents of the American popular song (Sarah, Ella, Billie, Sinatra); or the most soulful improvisers in jazz (Coltrane, Louis, Mobley, Bill Evans, Wyn Kelly). It was a tall order, trying to forget about Chaplin ("City Lights," "Modern Times"), Fred and Ginger ("Swing Time"),; Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron or Debbie Reynolds). "American in Paris" is my personal all-time fav, though I concede that "Singin' in the Rain" reigns as the greatest of all screen musicals.
Compared with any of the foregoing examples, I expected "La La Land" to be bright and gauzy, purely escapist "fluff"--and in one sense, it is. Anyone who believes that a struggling, mediocre jazz pianist (it takes one--i.e., this writer--to know one) would end up with his own jazz club ("Seb's Place"), which is unbelievably large and filled--is living in a dream world which this movie, in its best moments, "evokes" but does not lie about. Outdoor jazz festivals have long since replaced jazz clubs as the only lucrative venues for jazz artists--though the public's notion that there are still musicians who can "make a living" by playing jazz remains, in the 2nd decade of the 21st century, a myth of gigantic, even dangerous, proportions. (Successful jazz musicians secure MacArthur grants, guest professorships, UNESCO projects, conservatory teaching gigs, etc.--from which they can pick and choose when and where they play "out.")
The opportunities for actors let alone "song and dance" performers are almost as remote, especially when proportionality is factored in (there are only so many musicals for a seemingly infinite number of contestants). But despite its improbabilites, this movie won me over, for some of the following key reasons:
1. The two photographs in Seb's (Ryan Gosling's) pad are of John Coltrane and Bill Evans (I wonder what percentage of viewers recognized them). These two figures, I always felt, are the two most important, seminal musicians in the second half of jazz history. (The essential figures in the first half are more numerous: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington,Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.) But those two photographs--in combination with Seb's dismissal of the music of Kenny G (not jazz) and his learning from records (LP's, which is how my college friends and I learned how to play the music)--that was enough "realism" to bring a degree of seriousness to the story of Seb and Mia (Emma Stone). Additionally, there are numerous references to jazz as a dying art and as an old story that belongs in the previous century. In the face of such sad but undeniably true testimony, Seb's refusal to write the music's obituary ("Not on my watch!" he says) strikes us as believable. (I know quite a few musicians who believe as Seb.)
2. When Mia (Emma Stone) fails to show on time for Seb's offer of a date at the movies, she becomes distraught and runs to the movie theater (where Seb is conveniently seated, alone, closest to the screen). Emma walks unto the stage and, in effect, becomes part of the movie that Seb is watching. It's one of those magic moments in which the viewer suspends disbelief, a captive to Orson Welle's definition of the movies as "a ribbon of dreams." We realize we're watching a movie about movies--which is exactly the privileged position that "Singin' in the Rain" ( a movie about the evolution and essence of the movies) affords the viewer (admittedly, with greater, more enduring satisfaction).
3. The critical dance number in which we're allowed to see the connection between the two dreamers even before they themselves realize it is definitely not wasted in "La La Land." It occurs outside, above a parking lot overlooking Los Angeles' lights at night. True, it's not Astaire or Kelly (though it would be hard to fault either Gosling or Stone as singers--since their celebrated forebears were not especially notable for their singing voices). The scene manages to be at once spell-binding and compelling, thanks to the lighting, the mis en scene and, above all. a cooperative camera that refuses to relinquish its job to some editor. In a shot that is breath-taking in its duration (not a single cut!), the space is preserved between the pair, thanks to the third member of the dance team, which is necessarily the cooperative camera.
4. Seb's "submission" to John Legend's offer to play in his "futuristic" band (an electrified fusion-disco ensemble), was totally believable and familiar to this viewer. Watching Gosling standing up while holding down, with a single hand, the keys of a small electric piano (Keith Jarrett long ago dismissed all electrics as "toys"), I could only imagine how I looked as a week-end "keyboard player" doing the same (I went through four Fender Rhodes keyboards--one stolen from the band van--and that was before the Yamaha DX7 and digital keyboards replaced most analog keyboards).
So there's some believability about a musical that's set AFTER the age of jazz and the American musical (the source of most of the "jazz standards" comprising the "Great American Songbook"). Moreover, the aforementioned moments of realism come after the awakening number on the crowded Los Angeles freeway--four lanes of congested traffic all headed in the same direction! But instead of honking their horns during a major snarl-up, the occupants of each car escape from their mobile prison boxes and, like a rapidly spreading wildfire, burst out in song and dance! What a way to open a musical! Perhaps not in its most "classic" form but at least close enough to "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease" to arrest and hold our attention.
The love story is as simple as they come--with one difference. Boy and girl don't end up with each other (except in their imaginations). Here the movie has an opportunity to score points about the invidious threat of the "American Dream Factory," which attracts, then chews up and spits out 99% of the aspirants who allow themselves to become bewitched in the gauzy fantasy of "La La Land." Instead it allows us to fantasize that Seb and Mia are forced, merely, to settle on a consolation prize. They don't end up with each other, but each makes a choice that's close enough to their original dreams. As a result, they're finally left with some semblance of the over-taught and over-read Robert Frost poem, "The Road Not Taken" (Oh, how things might have been different. Oh, if only life didn't offer us such choices. Maybe we should seek citizenship in N. Korea.)
Give the director points for using, in place of digital cameras, genuine film. (It works in subconscious ways to make the viewer a privileged member of a 1950s audience.) And Emma Stone for her compelling performance (those eyes! that mature voice!). The talent of her character is absolutely convincing because we hear it and see it in each of her scenes. The talent of Ryan Gosling (who is said to have taken a year or two of piano lessons prior to filming) is less apparent. Although he's insistent about his purist dedication to creative, acoustic jazz, we hear no more than a minute or two of authentic jazz throughout the entire course of the movie--and it's not from his plano playing. (The anemic "love theme" that he reprises in the movie's final scene is the playing of an amateur--and, so for that matter, are the other songs in the film. I know few musicians who would not believe that, given the assignment, they could do the same.)
Maybe that's the point--to enable today's viewer to "relate"--even to instrumental music. Hearing Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson would drive people away. The playing of Ryan Gosling and the songs in the score have the opposite effect. Maybe each of us should write a musical and seek the 30 million dolars to film it. (All the same, there's a song sung by Sarah Vaughan--"Words Can't Describe"--that offers a sublime melody with a perfectly fitted set of lyrics. Moreover, it's included on an album--"Swingin' Easy"--that lists the song as "Public Domain." That alone could be inspiration for a musical with at least one show-stopping, unforgettable song (along with a big savings in time and money spent on permissions and royalties).
I had no trouble whatsoever when Warren Beatty announced "La La Land" as the best picture of 2016. But when, moments later, the announcement was voided and "Moonlight" was declared the rightful winner, I was equally good with the Academy's pick.