When we were growing up, music was an important differential factor. “What are you listening?” was a question everybody asked and based on the answer given by the person you talked to, decision was made if someone is worthy of friendship or, if fate was inclined that way, something more. Sometime during that period, I fell in love in jazz. Jazz was pretentious enough, and still individual enough, to be the music of choice. One small club owned by the jazz legend, became place where I felt good. Basically, that small club felt like home.
That’s the reason I fully understood the Sebastian’s desire in Damien Chazelle’s movie “La La Land”. Dreams, as invisible desires, are by nature uncontrollable and when Sebastian dreamt about having his own place where music will be the most important thing and where that pretentious something jazz is made of will be welcomed and applauded, I could relate to that. That’s the place where, in the end, individualism will rule. But, there is a problem. We don’t live in the world that supports individualism and non-conventional actions. We live in a trendy and predictable world where creativity is lost in the unknown quantity of mediocre celebrities. In that sense, “La La Land” is an homage to a different time. Time that was, like Cinemascope, more vibrant and with stronger boundaries of what is, and what isn’t art. In a nutshell, “La La land” is autoreferential homage to the lost culture of excellence and bohemism that Hollywood and consequently the world – once cherished.
“They don’t make them like that anymore”. The sentence I hear a lot when “La La land” is mentioned. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are icons for the new age, people say. They are comparing them to Julie Andrews or Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. I recognized the references. They really don’t make them like that anymore. They were there, so obvious that I’ve tried to back off from the screen. I didn’t realize what I was seeing, the references made just for show or the movie in its own right. “La la land” hit me by surprise. I really wanted to like it and I was shocked since in that one, simple moment it was only references I truly cared about. Hollywood loves them. Hollywood could never get enough of them. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about “Hugo” or “Birdman” (just in recent years), references are winning formula in Awards season. “La la land” exploits that to the maximum. “Ninotchka”, “Singin’ in the Rain”, “American in Paris” – they’re all there.
Then, there was another problem. Mia and Sebastian were aspiring artists struggling for survival in the harsh Hollywood environment. They are trying to stay true to themselves, they are trying to keep their dreams intact. From the start, it was obvious that their relationship is doomed. Perspectives were different, characters too. But, in all their struggle, they still drive good cars, they attend to the pool parties, they mingle around the rich people. I caught myself thinking, “Hey, maybe they aren’t that poor after all”. In another referential point, Chazelle sent Mia and Seb to the cinema, to see “Rebel without a cause”. Implication would be that they are rebels against the system. Somehow, they are embodiment of the forgotten Hollywood lore as the movie itself. In the perspective, Chazelle told us that “La la land” is giving Hollywood its rebellious soul back. Because, as most movies made in that way are telling us, it was all better in the past.
Technically, “La la land” is a perfect movie. Soundtrack works, Chazelle is fantastic director in his captures of the magical couple above the Hollywood hills, and Cinemascope colors are just vibrant enough to remind us which genre we’re watching. Technically, Chazelle knows what he’s doing. Story wide, however, it doesn’t feel like it. Some of my colleagues made an argument that story is not as important in musical as it is in other genres, but I disagree. I think of “Chicago” or “Moulin Rouge”, as they first came to my mind, as an argument that the story IS important for musical as it is almost everywhere else, and the story of “La la land” could be told without the kitsch trap in which Chazelle finds himself more often than not.
It’s hard not to think critically about the timing of the “La La Land”. Arguably, the thirties were of the most successful periods for musicals, and the thirties in USA (and the world in general) could not be considered as cheerful times. Where do that puts us with “La la land” considering the geopolitical situation in the world? Should we look at it as one hell of an illusion pill which is supposed to make us forget all about the changes around us? Should we use it to remind us what the world is supposed to be and wouldn’t that be just one illusion too much?
We don’t always get what we want, as Mia and Seb did. But, in the “La la land” what they did get wasn’t even close to the things they imagined. Mia is more somewhere else that in Hollywood and Seb’s jazz club feels like one more sale which slipped creativity underneath him. Yes, they succeeded, but the success is bitter. Reality, it seems, is always around the corner. They helped each other to do something with their lives in that specific moment when they were right for each other, and that’s that. Life goes on. In their case, that’s just another mask in line.
To conclude, “La la land” isn’t a bad film. It’s just not one of the “best of all time”, and I think that it’s not even of the best in its own genre. It’s a well-made movie which appeared in just the right time. I really, really wanted to love it. I really wanted it to be great. But, for me something is missing. In all aspiration for difference and excellence, the feeling after the end is mediocre and unfulfilled.
Yes, they really don’t make them like that anymore. But that’s doesn’t make it better than it really is.
Rating: 7 / 10