HERE’S TO THE FOOLS WHO DREAM
La La Land – The Defense Rests
Article by Paul Preston
There are fewer and fewer films that are the true work of a director with a vision. Blockbusters which once had directorial signature (like Lucas, Nolan or Spielberg’s) have given way to the likes of Jurassic World, The Divergent Series and The Fast and the Furious franchise, which now feature what is ultimately directors for hire. I’m sure it’s studio involvement meddling. A director known for dark and complicated dramas (David Ayer) gets aligned with Suicide Squad and the result is Ayer’s most watered-down effort.
Can you tell me the difference between the directors of the last two Pirates of the Caribbean movies? Can you tell me who they were? But you can certainly see the difference between Mad Max: Fury Road, the clear vision of director George Miller and San Andreas, who was directed by a guy they hired. Importance of the director is sadly only regularly meaningful on the smaller film level, and when a director brings a unique vision with unflinching follow-thru, it should be celebrated. That’s my take on La La Land.
You can tell Damien Chazelle’s fingerprint is on every frame of this movie, it’s loaded with choices, some are very bold, but it never seems like Chazelle went to shoot his next movie while La La Land languished in post. His visualization of what the film could be is there beginning to end and that’s refreshing. So, let’s look at it chronologically, then I’ll address some of the film’s most vocal criticisms.
This is an outstanding technical achievement, pulling of the effect of a single shot roaming around a jog-jammed Los Angeles freeway. What’s not talked about enough is how joy is being extracted from this frustrating daily routine. Not only singing and dancing but what they’re singing and dancing about – hard choices and risk. And they’re joyous about it. It immediately sets up what these fools who dream are about – putting it all on the line and TRYING. The country has enough people who settle, the ones who take a chance deserve this ecstatic opening, and when the back of the delivery truck opens to see the band playing, you get this feeling Los Angeles, despite “when they let you down”, has a merry band of misfits supporting your dream. Hope, perhaps, is the real “another day of sun”.
Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian is introduced in his convertible and he’s listening to jazz music on cassette tape. This is your first cue that we’re in a Los Angeles that’s a dream world. This is a conceit developed over a sixty plus years of movie musicals. The same way we have to buy into the dream cabaret in Chicago – you’re either in or your out on this idea, and some people have fought it to the end credits (“Why don’t they just use their cell phones?” – ‘cause it’s not real Los Angeles, it’s dream L.A., one reserved for a movie. And having guys like Greg and Josh, Mia’s double date stooges, always on their cell phone is a choice – they’re douchebags).
We’re introduced to Mia (Emma Stone) in her car, going over an audition. When she gets to the audition itself, things are a mess for her, from having a coffee spilled on her to struggling to get out of her job to make her call time. Then, she’s interrupted mid-audition by someone who has to get a note to the casting directors. Stone does great work here, despite her read being derailed by inconsiderate assistants, her fragility and talent are on full display. She’s actually doing a high-quality read and just needs to endure these a-holes to get to the next level (don’t we all). She never even removes the phone from the side of her head as she contemplates what to do next after being disrupted. I started rooting for her right then.
Seb and Mia fall in love during a movie (Rebel Without a Cause). La La Land is a movie in love with movies. And you’re in love with movies, too. Otherwise, why are you at the movies? Yet for some reason, there’s backlash against a filmmaker making a movie about Hollywood. My argument for that is always that people pursuing their dreams are the most interesting in the world. The entertainment industry is full of fascinating people. I’ll admit there is something dramatically palpable about a guy who gets his girlfriend pregnant in high school, then has to spend the next thirty years in a factory, but I’m not gonna lie that I’d rather see a movie about people who have more at stake because they risked.
After their screening of Rebel, Mia and Seb dance all over Griffith Observatory and their dance is punctuated by an iris out transition, a technique employing a collapsing circle used by old films to fade out of a scene. It’s an interesting homage, but more importantly, it signifies the end of the movie musical part of La La Land. So if you don’t like La La Land because you don’t like musicals, then you’re only watching half of the movie. Big numbers the likes of “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd” where people just burst into song are done the entire second half of the film. The next moment where someone breaks into song ‘cause they can no longer use solely words to express themselves (the best use of the musical concept) is during Mia’s final audition, when she needed it most. And that’s half of what makes it so effective. More on that later.
Another effect of the iris transition out is to signal a change of scene. There won’t be so much dancing through the stars anymore, there’s conflict and a disturbance in the force. Much of this comes in the form of John Legend’s character, Keith, who offers Seb an opportunity to play electrified pop music, a 180-degree genre switch from Seb’s love of jazz. Upon second viewing, it’s clear Keith’s music IS the bad guy. The Messengers’ tune, “Start A Fire”, is catchy, but it does require Sebastian to compromise. And it’s all OK to say you should compromise for financial reasons, but chances are you’re saying that ‘cause you’re not an artist. Compromise is the death of artistic expression, and when you give your all to what you love, compromise is not an option. This is not a thin storyline, unless you’ve always compromised.
Artists are continually fighting against stupid. There’s one particularly effective scene where The Messengers have a photo shoot and there’s a disdainful photographer asking Seb to bite his lip as he plays and I believe he even says something like, “You’re a keyboard player, play something”. Shut up. This scene is a microcosm of the condescension towards artists by people who risk nothing. I rooted harder for Seb right then.
Emma Stone is unfairly getting trashed for her thin singing voice. I believe, once again, a solid choice has been made here. During “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, she finally unloads full voice on the casting directors looking at her for a major film role. Waiting until then to belt is a choice! And it says everything, especially during a song relating the story of a woman whose major risk in life was dipping her toes into a river. It’s a risk she reflected on from her death bed. That’s as far as most people get in taking gambles. To risk is everything, and Mia laid it all out on the line during her final, desperate plea of a song. It was magnificent.
And it shouldn’t be played down how extraordinary Mia’s win is. I’ve heard it dismissed as unrealistic and “it could never happen”. Watching the up-against-everything actor pull a huge WIN is a beautiful thing, and much like this film, is worth celebrating.
And now, to some of the criticisms I’ve heard. I’m happy to tell you how off-base they are:
– Ryan Gosling as jazz’s white savior.
I’ve heard of it as Gosling “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining” jazz. Ridiculous. If white people can’t enjoy/play jazz, someone should’ve told Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz. And Sebastian says jazz is dying, and it wouldn’t be if everyone I’ve heard from on this would talk about jazz at any other time in their life besides bagging on this movie. Where were your thoughts on the latest Henry Threadgill album? No one posted any links to Old Locks and Irregular Verbs on Facebook, from what I remember. This, like most negative movie comments, seems cut and pasted from somewhere else. I doubt many people thought of this during the movie.
– Too many rip-offs of other movies.
If you’re going down that road, you’re gonna talk about nearly every movie made from 1980 to the present. But it’s the level of nitpicking that’s off the deep end here. There’s a video going around comparing, in split screens, La La Land to the films where it pays homage. But there’s a shot of Mia singing on a bed compared to a scene from Grease, where a character sang on a bed. Really? It ripped off Grease because they both had characters singing on a bed? Lame. This video, and may similar arguments, are seriously reaching.
– Mia and Seb are narcissists.
I’ve heard this a lot, that Mia and Seb choose their careers over love. The simple argument here is that perhaps you’re not good for anyone else unless you are fulfilled in your dreams. How many people settle, are miserable, and then are no good for both their career and relationship? Did they try and keep in touch/make it work during the five years not documented in the story? Maybe, and maybe it was tough to do. And perhaps Mia was fulfilled as an actress and met her next man at the best time in her life. My point is…
– The ending was a bummer.
It quite plainly and simply was not. When Seb sees Mia in his club, he’s stopped in his tracks, sinks at the piano and has to think of how to deal with it. He gives her their song. Gosling plays the moment extraordinarily. Think of the people you’ve had meaningful relationships with in your life. Did you marry them all? No, but no doubt they had profound effect on you. I can certainly say that about myself. Seb and Mia don’t end up together, but they were each crucial to the other’s growth and to the arrival at the place they both were at the end of the film. And they know it, and the smile they share in the film’s final shots says it all.
– It’s the same songs over and over again.
No. Only “City of Stars” gets a reprise, sung solo the first time, sung as a duet the second time (on purpose). Some of the music from the songs gets reprised in the score, though, just like in a James Bond movie. I’ll let you go now and search all the articles on the web for the complaints about including the 007 theme in the score. You’re back already? There weren’t any? ‘Cause it’s not unusual. If you didn’t like the song, fine, but the idea that the tunes were overused is a thin argument.
La La Land is on its way to a rout at tonight’s Academy Awards, and I welcome it. Any film that says things like “Why do you say romantic like it’s a dirty word?” will have my heart. It’s a well-crafted triumph of directorial mastery and imagination that champions hope and possibility with an under-praised sense of humor and a love of the importance of dreaming.