The story of Hollywood is a great story and fusion of stories. There are many versions of at least parts of that story. Most people don’t have huge amount of time to devote to the telling or hearing of the tales of that great American industry. LA LA Land is a Damien Chazelle film which attempts to give us a look behind the veil that covers the lives lived in the capital of American entertainment. Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood does somehow have tonalities of the painterly French Vision of the Artist and I am French and American enough to feel that he has some elements in his visual language that come from the confluence of those cultures. his sense of music, muse, absorption in art and the nature of genius as displayed in Whiplash have brightened somewhat here. But, while knowing Damien Chazelle a bit helps us to see the vision on the bigger screen than usual — there are other things the film requires us to know better and more urgently. In this post I focus on Hollywood, love, movies, Los Angeles and the real cost of making choices as the major thing to understand while watching this film.
My parents and I were out celebrating on January 30,2017 and saw the film. It moved me to see what the story attempted and its ambitious ending was a part of the scope of the film exhibited in the greater vision of Cinemascope. From the acting to the choreography and the writing, I thought this movie was an exciting example of both great innovation and great preservation of important traditions in movie-making. The Washington Post review of what’s up with this year’s Oscars had to focus on this film because of its many nominations. But there was a follow-up story about the backlash to so much love coming to this new musical from the Academy. I think that the thing that distinguishes the film most is a sequence which comes near the end and reminds me of two other films. It reminds me of the opening sequence of the fine animated film UP! which makes that movie and it reminds me of the early montage sequence cut from The Big Chill in which Kevin Costner plays the deceased character Alex. The sequence changes all else there is and I relate to it profoundly — it adds the blues to the Jazz that defines much of the film and it pushes American audiences to understand the tensions that really exist in love, responsibility, happiness, communication and the needs of kids as well as the urgency of earning a living. In the scene around the sequence the central characters are in a real sense mysterious strangers where an observer would be challenged to detect the mystery but would readily know that they were strangers.
Movie-Made America is a book which attempts to tell part of that story which is the story of all Hollywood as it relates to all America. I had the book assigned to me back in the 1990s in a class on the history of popular culture at Louisiana State University and I read it again later on. This film is also really quite a thoughtful story about the relationship between Hollywood and Los Angeles as the dream capital and the rest of the country. The intrinsic challenge which is part of this film is that of telling that historical and social tale which defines the film industry while telling this very specific love story. That larger social challenge is certainly not fully met in the film but the full story of Hollywood is quite a story to tell.
There is not much one can say about the stuff dreams are made of that falls into the realm of journalism and perhaps less that falls into the realm of hard sciences. But movies are dreams and Jazz music is a language of dreams as well and actresses and pianists long to interpret the substance of other people’s dreams. The distance between Emma Stone and Mia is not an easy distance to determine. They both come from other states in the West to seek the fulfillment of screen dreams in Hollywood. Presumably Ryan Gosling is less like Sebastian. But the movie speaks to far more than that. It speaks to All American dreaming of greatness and the struggles they face and personal costs that can never be calculated. Like a friend of mine who is a black rocket scientist dreamer in a largely white world it speaks through the white Jazz man in L.A. about greatness that is off the racial and regional beat. This movie allows anyone, especially Americans, to seriously remember and evaluate where their own dreams have taken them.
In La La Land, a film that is the most movie oriented film I can remember in quite a while, one of the major characters is not directly tied to the movies. We can remember seeing Julianne Hough, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin and Katherine Zeta Jones remind us of the massive meaning of the music scene in L.A. in Rock of Ages not too long ago. But many of us forget that Los Angeles is a real town where music and movies have a complicated industrial relationship but real human being in both worlds have very human relationships. Jazz pianist Sebastian as played by Ryan Gosling reminds us of the way that entertainment lives in L.A. and that many of the performing arts are located as largely there at any industrial level and worldwide magnitude as they are in any other city. The purist with a small club is part of the total picture of L.A. life — there two we remember Rock of Ages. Albums from small producers and independent labels may still very likely hail from L.A. in one sense or another. The people who are in that world are people as complicated and authentically human Mia Dolan and Sebastian. My father left the film saying it reminded him of West Side Story, a very New York musical. But perhaps that is what they each had in common — they each spoke of a great American coastal city in a very specific time. The recent election reminds us of what the Oceanic coasts have in common. The Gulf Coast and the Great Lakes are not inland either but they are a separate vibe altogether.
Some reviews of the movie have been kinder than others but most can see the appeal of the couple Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) who are young nice to look at and are drawn together by their common location and a respect each has for the others desire to do what they love as they try to do that as well. Success is hard to define but the path to mounting successes presents them with choices and with each set of decisions the fragile fabric of their love affair is strained and then tattered, and the dreams they worked so hard to maintain in each other threaten to rip them apart. The Wall Street Journal review is I think more on point than most. But, although I deeply respect the film, I am not ready to give up on the super happy endings. I would love to have one myself. But this is a very human film about what people can believe might happen who are in the habit of looking both at greatness and personal cost in their lives. Our political class could learn something from it too –but it might be a bit to subtle for many of them. That is an uncharitable remark, the film is not uncharitable.
What I say is see the movie and play it over in your own head ….