What is it about the protagonists of ‘La La Land’ that they don’t play well with others?
Mia (Emma Stone) is a barista at a coffee shop inside Warner Bros, and is an aspiring artist. She fails again and again in her auditions, but she insists on producing a single-woman show, written, produced, acted and even financed by herself. Even that one big audition that gets her through the barrier and makes her a success (of which we are left to imagine but do not actually get to see how big it is) involves her putting up a solo performance by delivering a monologue of her own making quite spontaneously.
Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist, a Jazz traditionalist, someone who dreams of owning a Jazz club built in a way that it reveres all the jazz masters of the past, while keeping the tradition of classic Jazz alive. He struggles but continues to find solo gigs here and there. He makes compromises by playing set list of Christmas tunes, even when his hands itch to play his own tunes at clubs, that don’t much care for Jazz, but at least he is happy to live the day by being a solo pianist, till he finds that once in a lifetime opportunity to get himself financially secure, even if it means he has to compromise.
And as strong as they are about pursuing their individualistic visions of their lives, both Mia and Seb just don’t play along well with others. It’s a struggle and it’s a compromise for them, every step of the way. So, finally when they meet each other and try to accommodate each other, they find it difficult.
Damien Chazelle pretty much lets us know what ‘La La Land’ is all about right at the beginning. A traffic jam on a freeway, results in an explosion of a massive dance routine featuring drivers from all the vehicles that are stuck there. It’s colorful and spectacular, what with the camera angles and the flash-mob style dancing absolutely making you stand up from your seats to break a leg, or jiggle I should say. Within 5 minutes, you are thrown into this fantasy world, which you don’t want to come out of anytime soon..or at least that’s what you are made to believe.
Because at that point, the director stakes claim that he would stay true to his artistic pursuit of making a musical, except that he really doesn’t end up making a perfect musical. There is about a 40-45 minute period in the film where there is no song and dance ritual. Not that it is bad, in fact, I quite liked that portion of the film, but somehow Chazelle was convinced that it was the right thing to do even though that was not really staying true to his pursuit of making a perfect musical.
The Music – Yes, the very essence of a musical.
Don’t get me wrong. I know I am not qualified to even write a short critique on any kind of music, leave alone for a musical, that too one that involves some classic jazz. So, this is simply a reflection of how I felt as a listener, while I was watching the movie. In short, the music didn’t really hit me. Before I went into the theater, I may have listened to bits and pieces of the music through trailers, TV promos, etc. even though I deliberately waited to listen to them all in complete form till I watched the movie. The only pieces that stayed with me were the ‘Mia and Seb Theme’ and the ‘City of Stars’. The former has a very simple, but a poignant & a sad hook and the latter to me is a dance around the same notes that make the former hook work, but in somewhat of a happier plane. When I came home and listened to the theme piece, I have to admit I was completely impressed.
Justin Hurwitz is of course going to grab many awards this awards season and he deserves them all, because he has been part of a successful musical. He and the director have definitely brought out the nostalgia aspect so very well and if you have any familiarity with that era of song and dance, there is is nothing not to like about what they have managed to pull off. Still, it was not enough to make me fall in love with the music.
If there is one thing Chazelle fails to bring out in this movie, it is to breather life into his characters. To put it differently, I think he fails to bring out the life of his characters. There were three scenes that stand out in the move to me, where he does do that very powerfully. I just wish he had extended that control he showed in those three scenes, to many more scenes.
The first scene is where Mia tells Seb how she hates Jazz by giving a glimpse into her past. What follows is a bit of mansplaining on Seb’s part, but I will let that go and won’t hold that against Chazelle. The second scene is where Mia asks Seb if this is really what he wants to do (when he surprisingly shows up at the apartment during the middle of his tour) and the third scene would be part of the climax, where towards the end, they walk away from each other after understanding where they are in their lives.
I just wish Chazelle had taken the emotional time needed to chisel out a few more scenes to bring out who the real Mia is and who the real Seb is – not just their dreams.
Finally, if someone asked me if the movie worked for me or not. I would say, yes it did. And the only reason it worked for me in spite of my above observations is because of the lead pair, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. They were splendid as Mia and Seb, and I am not sure if anyone else could have pulled this off so well. They are pleasant to watch and they carry the verve of the generation so well on screen.
In the end, La La Land is more about veneration of a bygone era. It’s a movie that adores the traditionalism of that era, be it in music or in mannerisms, be it in the methods or in the mechanics, but certainly not the spontaneity or the deep personal sense. In an effort to make a musical that reflects all that he holds dear from the 1960s, the nostalgia, the color, the choreography and the jazz, Chazelle ends up making a movie that fails to connect all the dots, and yet screams artistically to touch the visual sense of the modern moviegoers, who either have a personal connection to that era or those who find an exotic connection to the optics of that era by getting to live that colorful life, vicariously through the success of Mia and the unhappiness of Seb.