One of my favorite bands is the Talking Heads. There are a number of their songs that I might call their best on any given day, but I think the one that has always resonated with me most is “Life During Wartime”. It’s a bleak, deceptively energetic song about how living through war strips human beings down to a state of bare subsistence. At the height of wartime, human beings no longer think about things extraneous to their survival. To live through war is to lose the taste for nice things, such as notebooks, dancing, and music in general. Lead singer David Byrne repeatedly wails, “I ain’t got time for that now”. This song is a sad but clear-eyed observation of how times of great strife and conflict impact our relationship with the art we consume, and the sober conclusion seems to be that, after experiencing enough oppression, fear, and loss, one might stop seeking art altogether. I do not believe we are living through literal wartime right now, but I do believe that we are in the midst of the most fractious, dismal, and dangerous time I have been alive to see and I do not know when things will get better. I felt the heavy weight of that realization throughout the end of 2016, as friends and I observed the latest changing of the political guard and discussed what it would mean for women, for members of the LGBTQ community, and for people of color. And while we debated and the heavy clouds formed above, the Oscar nominations came out at their usual time and a tiny, gossamer skiff sailed into the brewing storm. That fragile vessel was La La Land, Damian Chazelle’s sweet, nostalgic, lovingly crafted modern showbiz musical. As it blithely paraded its old-fashioned charms through the annual awards season, its bright colors cut a strange figure against the ominous landscape. As it moved past films about racism, misogyny, homophobia, grief, economic strife, and corporate soul-sickness, it began to resemble an oblivious, bewildered aristocrat, emerging from the hermetic seal of the palace to find violence and chaos in the streets. I loved Damian Chazelle’s previous feature, Whiplash, and I think La La Land is a terrific, clever, moving piece of art, but even I have to ask: has the feverish conflict in our country reached the point where a bright, bedazzled bauble like this no longer means much? Do we no longer have time for something like La La Land?
To put it another way, is La La Land a film out of time? Despite the fact that it bills itself as a modern musical, it is really a movie that seems to want to exist outside of any particular era. We see modern cars and e-mail and a character even makes a reference to early 21st century television show, The OC. And yet, in the film’s Oscar-winning tune “City of Stars”, Emma Stone coos about meeting someone though the “smokescreen of the crowded restaurants”. Smoking in California restaurants has been forbidden since 1995, so it seems likely that La La Land means to keep one foot in the present while also existing in a kind of romantic dreamworld cobbled together from real and cinematic history. The film is meant to be a surreal reverie, reflecting the romantic ideal of movies, Los Angeles, and the many people who come to Hollywood to dream. La La Land begins with its most energetic number, “Another Day of Sun”, in which a congested freeway becomes the stage for an elaborate dance number performed by starry-eyed motorists with dreams of fame. The film will come to focus almost exclusively on its two leads, Sebastian (a charismatically grumpy Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone, playing a wide range of emotions and putting the adverb “charmingly” in front of each one). However, Mia and Sebastian are nowhere to be found in this first number. It is only when the singing stops and the motorists all hop back into their cars that we see both Mia and Sebastian are stuck in this same traffic. Mia is practicing a monologue in her car and not paying attention to the road. Sebastian pulls up beside her and honks in frustration and this becomes their first fateful meeting. Mia runs into Sebastian again later that night (it happens to be Christmas), right as Sebastian is being fired from his pianist job at a supper club. Sebastian, a stubborn, jazz-loving idealist, is being let go for playing free jazz instead of “Jingle Bells”. Coincidence keeps throwing the characters together until they eventually become a couple. Both are artists with dreams of success. For Sebastian, that means owning his own jazz club, where he can play the kind of traditional jazz that he feels is being left on the scrap heap. Eventually, he joins a jazz fusion combo with an old classmate (John Legend), but the band’s very modern musical identity is worlds apart from the kind of jazz Sebastian wants to play. Meanwhile, Mia is a struggling actress and aspiring playwright, repeatedly going through the indignity of terrible auditions, trying to put on a one-woman show, and wondering how much more stomach she has for the kind of rejection that Los Angeles regularly serves up. As they contend with failure and setbacks, they are also forced to juggle their newfound romance and the challenges of chasing their dreams. La La Land is a film about the joys and the costs of following your passion and it holds the idea of dreaming up to the light like the world’s most sacred object. For better or worse, the power of dreaming is the film’s central theme and the modesty of that sweet, admirable notion in troubled times like these seems to be the central point of controversy around it. That said, it is not La La Land’s only issue.
One of the major critiques directed at La La Land is that it only achieves modest success as a musical. I understand and even somewhat agree with this criticism. I will immediately concede that the dancing in La La Land is mostly lackadaisical. It tips its cap to the idea of dancing in a 1950s Hollywood musical without ever really coming close to the astounding feats of choreography found in those movies. The film claims to be inspired partly by Singin’ In the Rain, the second best film ever made by my estimation, and that comparison really does it no favors. There is not a single dance move in La La Land that can stand next to the blistering athleticism of Singin’ In the Rain. Donald O’Connor’s doctor famously ordered him to stay in bed for three days after he filmed the dancing for “Make ‘Em Laugh”, while the idea of Ryan Gosling so much as pulling a hamstring on “Waste of A Lovely Night” is laughable. La La Land hits the peak of its physical virtuosity in the first scene, before we ever see Mia and Sebastian. I will also admit that Gosling is a bit of a middling singer, though this shortcoming is mitigated by the fact that he has a dry, understated sense of timing, which complements the breezy, jazzy, effervescent tone of the songs. This is not a musical that really calls for vocal showboating. Emma Stone is a better singer than her co-star, but I admit that her voice can be a bit breathy and strained. That said, she also has a knack for conveying emotion through her singing and that becomes indispensable by the time the film reaches its final, and full-stop best, song: “Audition”. I genuinely like every one of La La Land’s songs, but most of them are humble melodies more suited to humming to one’s self on a warm summer evening than belting out in a karaoke lounge. These are fine little tunes with a firm grasp of melody and emotion, but I would agree that La La Land would fall utterly short as a musical if it did not have at least one song that brings the house down. It needs that one moment of unbridled catharsis. “Audition” finds Mia being put on the spot at the most important audition of her life. Rather than recite a prepared piece, the casting director wants her to simply tell a story. Hearing that the film takes place in Paris, Mia’s thoughts go to her late aunt who once lived there. This aunt first introduced Mia to the magic of movies and inspired her to write and perform. Mia haltingly begins to tell the story of when her aunt, acting on a whim, jumped into the Seine river. Her nervous, faltering speech suddenly transforms into a gentle melody and from there it builds into a full-throated ballad about following one’s muse right up to the boundary of madness. “Audition” is the moment that this laidback musical reaches a much-needed fever pitch. As Mia sings a toast to “the ones who dream”, she renews her own depleted spirits and the film throws its arms around the artists of the world. Whatever other reservations I have about La La Land, I unabashedly love “Audition”. I love it for the small details it gives us of this aunt we will never meet. How she took her shoes off before jumping into the Seine, the image of her sick in bed but determined to repeat this meaningful mistake. The sense of a fiery flawed woman who “lived in her liquor”. In a film that can occasionally feel suffocating for keeping its focus exclusively on Mia and Sebastian, these small glimpses of a beloved aunt help the film’s miniature Faberge world feel just a little bit bigger. And for all of Stone’s limitations as a singer, I adore her for the entirety of this song. Some of her breathiness is still there, but the context of the scene and the song turn that limit into a strength. Her weaknesses make the scene exciting and moving. Stone pushes the vessel of her voice as hard as she can over the choppy surf of the film’s one truly big song, and the fact that the vessel is frail and rickety only increases the tension and the overwhelming emotional release of her make-or-break moment.
I can very easily put myself in the shoes of a La La Land detractor. A musical made mostly of modest ditties that uses up all its noteworthy choreography in the first five minutes and gives its one and only vocal showstopper to a woman with a plaintive, trembling voice. That is all true, of course, but I think to flatly label that as a failing is to forget that there are many different kinds of musicals. Not every musical needs to be an explosive display of singing and dancing. For example La La Land’s most important musical influence is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a 1960s French operetta starring the brilliant and captivating Catherine Deneuve. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is, for my money, the second best film musical ever made and it shares La La Land’s sense of understated, jazzy melancholy. The songs in Cherbourg are gorgeous, but its delicate emotional register does not conform to the glitzy, epically melodramatic scale of a Broadway show. The film is not an extravagant burlesque revue but a wistful French romantic drama where characters sing their lines. Cherbourg and La La Land are both soft, twinkling musicals about lovers whose ideals about romance are challenged by economic realities and by life’s winding course. They are mature films about compromise as a hard but necessary part of life. Both films have a musical style that is alternatingly breezy and melancholic and they present life as a symphony of sweet and sorrowful notes playing off of one another. Unexpected joys and missed connections. I do not think people are wrong for wanting more out of La La Land in terms of musical prowess, but I encourage people to watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a true masterpiece of the musical genre, and consider La La Land in that context. If La La Land feels more musically modest than some would like, that is at least partly by Damian Chazelle’s design. It is a delicate and fumbling musical because its ideas lend themselves to that kind of low-key approach. It is about struggling and failing and learning that even success carries its own bittersweet consequences. If one looks at the film this way, its earnest, shaky voices feel distinctly more at home. To put it in terms of a musical analogy, I have great respect for the massive voice of Whitney Houston, but my favorite artist is Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan made some of the best albums ever recorded, but his voice is not what you’d call technically impressive. It is an expressive but reedy instrument. Someone could approach me and ask, “Well, wouldn’t those great Dylan albums sound even better with a massive voice like Whitney Houston’s? Maybe Freddie Mercury?” Of course not. Throw Luciano Pavarotti in there while you’re at it and the answer is still no. And the reason is there is more to music, or any other kind of art, than sheer technique. Making great art is about nuance and shade and sometimes that means a shaky singer is a better fit for the music than someone with a five-octave range. It’s the reason the simple harmonies of a Ronettes song give me chills, while Santana will always bore me to tears. Not every painting calls for the same giant brush, not every song should end with an American Idol glory note, and not every musical has to feel like Phantom of the Opera.
Chazelle’s overtly stated desire to pay homage to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg helps to contextualize some of its musical modesty. However, it also casts light on what I think is La La Land’s bigger deficiency: its story and characters. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a masterful, heartbreaking story of romance thwarted by war and life’s cruel economic hurdles. It justifies its relative musical restraint by being one of the most powerful, rich, and emotionally overwhelming love stories ever told. By comparison, Mia and Sebastian’s romance feels very slight. Their romantic tribulations are the product of their own decisions about how to pursue their artistic ambitions and, while balancing a relationship and a career is a relatable struggle for many, their story is much less devastatingly impactful than The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. When you get down to it, La La Land is not just a modest musical, but also an exceedingly modest love story. If I can pinpoint the problem, it’s that Chazelle, cinematographer Linus Sandgren, editor Tom Cross, costume designer Mary Zophres, composer Justin Hurwitz, and the rest of the technical crew do such a fine job of making their Los Angeles dreamscape feel lush and intoxicating that it throws the relative banality of the romance into even greater relief. The story of Mia and Sebastian, two likeable artists who spend six months falling for each other and have to decide whether they can balance that love with their burgeoning careers, can feel a little blasé on repeat viewings. And, again, I would argue this is entirely by Damian Chazelle’s design. The film’s entire purpose is to take a very small story of dreaming, loving and compromising and give it the emotional tug of a Hollywood musical. The interplay of the sweetly modest and the emotionally ravishing is very much what La La Land has in mind. Nevertheless, this is how the film stumbles at the same time that it succeeds. And this brings me back to why La La Land looks like such a strange, bejeweled relic next to the year’s more substantively great films. Because once you’ve finished admiring its clever story beats and its beautiful colors and its bewitching music, what you are left with is two average Angelenos giving voice to the year’s most anachronistically inconsequential movie theme: the power of dreams. La La Land is about the value of dreaming and the compromises that come along with that. And, please don’t laugh, pursuing your dreams is a very good thing to do. And making human connections and finding love are a huge part of what it means to be human. And learning about compromise and how we have to let go of some dreams so other dreams can flourish is a big part of life. If these ideas are not matters of life and death, I still think they are sweet and thoughtful and worth holding onto.
Still, I can see why those concerns seem naïve and sheltered in the increasingly dark days of early 2017. The breathless sincerity with which the film watches two nice, young, photogenic white Californians follow their bliss feels undeniably quaint. La La Land is a good-natured, fizzy, wistful, technically assured, well-acted film about dreamers, and I wanted dearly to write about its many pleasures without taking the conflict and fear and uncertainty of the outside world into account. As a sterling piece of escapism, La La Land was always meant to be cordoned off from the outside world. But the film is over and now I’m sitting in my world, the real world, and trying to make sense of where La La Land fits into it. And if it doesn’t fit in anywhere, as a number of people seem to think, then that sends an important message about where we are as a society, whether the film had that message in mind or not. And, very clearly, La La Land had nothing of the sort in mind. This earnestly extravagant nostalgia trip had the misfortune of being born right as the world took a turn for the macabre and there is not a thing the film can do about it. It talks in urgent, hushed tones about the importance of dreaming, but its dreams are filled with celluloid and lipstick and it never has nightmares. I had a lovely time with La La Land, but I also understand that this film, which evokes a bygone era, may have been made for a more recently bygone era. If the film’s Technicolor fantasias are too slight, too sheltered, and too euphorically oblivious to resonate in a world this anxious and besieged then so be it. I’ll lock this little trinket away in a desk drawer and dream of a time when it is useful again.