I finally saw the Damien Chazelle movie musical, La La Land (an allusion to Los Angeles and Hollywood). I thought it was very good and enjoyed it. I only became interested in it when I realized it was getting positive reviews. I read a couple from people I would have thought wouldn’t like it, but did. I really agree with Jim Kunstler that it’s surprising the movie was even made, since it is nostalgic about a time of greater values and appreciation of art. Still, there is a dark edge to it.
While the movie is unapologetic in its nostalgia for the classic Hollywood musicals of the 1930s and 1940s, it never gets lost in the past. So while Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone perform soft-shoe steps and ballroom performances that homage Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they are interrupted at points by modern life intrusions. That duality is a major theme of the movie. It uses cell phones and traffic gridlock as images of reality versus the the protagonists’ artistic dreams.
That conflict of having to live reality in spite of a person’s deepest desires is not new in drama or even musicals. It strikes me as especially poignant today, however, because current reality is so intrusive and oppressive.
The movie’s first musical sequence defines that duality theme. A long stretch of gridlock over the Los Angeles freeway is the epitome of modern life. People of all backgrounds, incomes, education, etc, stuck in the same trap. They can’t progress and they can’t go back. The landscape is an uninspiring construct of gray concrete and dull automobiles. Then one woman leaves her car and starts singing (”Another Day of Sun”). She dances among the autos and is quickly joined by others until the traffic jam is a stage for a rousing performance.
The message is obvious and well done. It’s a musical version of people making lemonade (when handed a lemon). The number sets a tone that the movie stays true to until it reaches its “unexpected conclusion” that Mr. Aldridge alludes to.
There is, in this first scene, an added dark image that I think is intentional, though I’m unsure of the intent. The grid-locked drivers do their dance beneath sunny skies streaked with chemtrails. There’s an obvious ‘X’ in the glary white sky that gives the picture (for those who are aware) of dancing in the face of death. It brings to mind the theme of the movie, Cabaret (the 1972 film), which depicted hedonistic revelry in the face of encroaching Nazism. I could write it off as unintentional but for the little clip of a drone-looking jet flying across the screen with no reason for being there within the movie’s world. It is ominous only when the viewer steps outside the movie and considers the wider context.
Now despite that darkness, I did enjoy the movie. The music was really good—jazz tempered with “broadway” music and echoes of 1940’s tunes. The dancing was refreshing in its nostalgia—actual steps on a imaginative stages (like the number done “among the stars” in the Griffith planetarium).
The plot was basic and also nostalgic: two aspiring artists, one a musician with a deep love of jazz and the other an actress with yen to playwright, find each other and fall in love. The tension comes from their chasing their dreams while trying to stay together. Being true to their art is a major theme and I even heard echoes of O’Shaunessy’s “Ode” in the dialogue (where artists are the “movers and shakers” of this world). But the real world sees no value in artists, and requires aspiring artists to give up their dreams or die, or at least sell out. The movie speaks to this and is, I believe, the point made by the ending.
La La Land is expected to win some awards, and deservedly so, I think. If you appreciate good music and dance, especially from the Hollywood musical classics of the previous mid-century, I think you’ll love La La Land. It is, as reviewers have said, bright and breezy and exuberant. It’s entertaining in a way that we seldom see in movies anymore. I recommend it, but with the caution that it contains a streak of darkness in its overt theme, and at some subliminal level.
So watch La La Land, and I hope you enjoy it. But if you come away with an unease that you can’t put your finger on, I would point you to the final scene of Cabaret. There, in the midst of all the partying in a 1930s’ nightclub, the camera’s final focus is on one audience member’s swastika armband.