By Dominique Paul Noth
I would not hesitate to send every movie lover in the land, especially those with some cultural perspective, to relish the re-creation of Hollywood romance and exuberance represented in “La La Land.” It goes unabashedly after the main issue – accepting singing and dancing as an expression of emotion from the opening dance number on a freeway. It creates in the tale of surprising nuance between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling a joy in all the clichés of young love, of cute aggressive meeting, of slow unfolding of feelings, of rapturous joys in physical expression of dance and a thoughtful ending that cannot be revealed of how first love survives second circumstances in a poetic manner.
Two things I dread about the movie -- one is the attitude that Stone and Gosling in their dancing under the clever choreography of Mandy Moore will be acclaimed as some sort of equal to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. They remain untouched.
I do think part of Astaire’s appeal was he looks so ordinary that the perfection of his body lines and dexterity were all the more extraordinary. Debbie Reynolds, who had not danced a lick before “Singing in the Rain” and was tirelessly drilled into grinning expertise under the relentless MGM system, represents a different school of learning though the same sort of drilling has been mastered in “La La Land.”
No, Gosling and Stone execute seemingly spontaneous turns in the park and float in space much as Astaire did in “The Belle of New York.” But the real music accomplishment for Gosling was learning the piano fingering throughout to represent the keyboardist he plays with such charm.
Their dancing and singing is much more a case of feeling “we could do this!” While time has revealed that Astaire and Rogers were the embodiment of versatile fluidity, Gosling and Stone are asked to be identifiable and they are. She is not so pretty as to be off-putting, he is not so handsome as to seem unavailable, their acting is not so formidable as to be out of reach (it is just cutesy right) and their emotional flirtation (which is what this openly is) are just giddy fantasy fulfillment for young couples in the audience. It is only the older jaded cynics that will make the sad comparison to the greats of the 1930s – perhaps because they expect a blinded young audience to do the same.
My biggest fear is the clones this box office success will spawn, a series of romantic musicals as if this signals a rebirth rather than an encapsulation of the joys of musical romance. The film will kill at the box office, automatically forcing years of imitation. It will win every award in sight since it reflects that self-congratulatory tone of Hollywood legend that inevitably wins big. “Chicago,” “The Artist” and “Argo” are all strong films but all won best picture Oscar because they were identified by the movie industry itself as saying what we do is significant to the human condition. Perhaps so, but glorification of the studio system?
(I think distaste for this self-congratulatory vision of Hollywood has a lot to do with the negative reaction to a speech I thought was wonderful, Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes, who was clearly dealing with her emotional reaction to the reality of Trump and willing to risk being accused of an ego trip because she has a conscience.)
The wide open embrace and updating of a Hollywood tradition is truly a major attraction of “La La Land,” but it especially rides on the sense of kinetic energy and fearless embrace of youthful feelings represented by writer-director Damien Chazelle. Even before the awards came flooding in for his earlier film, “Whiplash,” in 2015, I applauded its quality and expressed anger for the audiences no longer being able to see the film after its brief November sojourn. (It came back).
In that movie I saw much of the Chazelle talent that underlies “La La Land,” which is far more his film than audiences will ever realize. Whether something as good or better comes next, who knows, but knowledge of film and audacity of delivery can only bode good.
Something important also needs to be noted. The movie’s plot is built entirely around the Gosling character’s devotion to jazz, and there are fine jazz excursions within it. But that is not the music being promoted. It is pop songs like “City of Stars” – a tune that can be fingered out on the piano. A tune that belongs in the old fashioned vein with the same repetition of themes and memories to haunt the departing audience much like the waves of Kern and Gershwin did. (To be fair, these are also the standards that often provided a base line for jazz.)
The composer and frequent Chazelle collaborator Justin Hurwitz, who attended Nicolet High and employs his own team of lyricists, has no hesitation of embracing those pop verities – or the frenetic methods of contemporary hip-hop embodied in the storyline for John Legend.
These excursions both comment on how they are not the Gosling character’s real cup of tea while reveling in their ability to entertain and make him money. The thread of what the characters want to do and have to do – she is an actress suffering endless demeaning auditions – remains a subtext that only makes the romance more endearing.
To try to keep my pleasure about “La La Land” in context, I have seen films of 2016 that I consider more lasting, even darker and truer in exploring the human condition.
While I have heard good things about but haven’t seen “Manchester by the Sea” I have seen two films that on the lasting depth of cinema I can consider more important than “La La Land.” One is redemptive of the human spirit, “Lion,” the other is more accepting of the lessons of life from childhood to adulthood in a Florida drug slum, “Moonlight.”
The warranted attention to “La La Land” should not distract moviegoers from reaching out for the others.