The day I went to see Damien Chazelle’s La La Land I was blissfully uninformed of anything about the film except for the fact that it was a musical and that some early viewers had been well pleased by it. My mood was dark for reasons both personal and public—the day itself gloomily overcast—and the mere word “musical” was enough motivation to walk in, with the hope of a few hours of mood-altering respite. Musicals had always offered as their minimum promise a small healing dose of unreal pleasure—an absorbing short-term residency—but that was quite enough.
This one had the desired effect. I hadn’t expected Swing Time or The Gang’s All Here or It’s Always Fair Weather, and so had no occasion to be disappointed. But after two hours of following the essentially simple trajectory of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and aspiring jazz club proprietor Sebastian (Ryan Gosling)—watching them meet cute (during a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway), go through the necessary succession of spats and misunderstandings until they reach the transcendent moment of dancing among the stars projected on the ceiling of the Griffith Park planetarium, and then move on, less buoyantly, toward their destined ends—I left the theater, if not enchanted or swept away then at the very least diverted and perked up. I had been irrationally touched near the beginning by a shot of Stone standing alone on a hilly street in Los Angeles at night, and in the last reel very much pleased by a neat trick of a resolution that avoided resolving anything; pleased as well, it must be said, by the recurring aftertaste of the pleasures of older films.
There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with savoring the way movie love seeps into movies. It almost amounts to a conquest of time, the way earlier decades find a way to be born again. If Jean-Pierre Melville could spend half a lifetime obsessively reworking The Asphalt Jungle, why shouldn’t Damien Chazelle feel free to recombine his impressions of An American in Paris or The Young Girls of Rochefort? La La Land was in any case a fresh concoction, not an adaptation or retread, and the songs by Chazelle and his musical collaborator Justin Hurwitz were newly minted, in a mode hovering somewhere between pop song and show tune.
Only afterward did I pick up on the storm of attacks and counterattacks swirling around La La Land following its unexpectedly wide success, even before it tied with All About Eve and Titanic for a record number (fourteen) of Oscar nominations. The movie had apparently become an object of passionate contention on multiple fronts. Sometimes it was criticized for being an inadequate musical, sometimes, it seemed, for being a musical at all—a musical in the classic frivolous sense—at a moment that called for engagement with more serious issues than the romantic problems and career ambitions of a couple of young Angelenos. A Facebook protest singled out Gosling’s Sebastian as the quintessential mansplainer for his insistence that Stone’s Mia, as a prerequisite to any deeper involvement, pay respectful attention to his lectures on “pure jazz.” That this was once again a white guy laying down the laws of jazz appreciation, and that what he meant by “pure jazz” seemed vaguely defined, and that the film as a whole paid only the most token attention to LA’s extraordinary ethnic diversity added further layers of polemic.
If that weren’t enough, neither Gosling nor Stone was much of a singer or dancer, so Chazelle’s desire to evoke the splendors of the Astaire-Kelly-Charisse era was foredoomed; and the songs inevitably weren’t exactly in the Gershwin and Kern league; and the story didn’t in the end do much more than ratify the rather limited and materialistic concerns of two shallow protagonists. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, in a jeremiad of a review, wrote of Chazelle having “slathered the movie with his coercive version of charm.” The New York Times foregrounded the arguments by pitting members of its art staff against each other in a roundup of dueling opinions. The debate took on comic dimensions. A YouTube posting offered a trailer of La La Land as directed, unsettlingly, by David Lynch. Saturday Night Live capped the controversy—if this can really be called a controversy rather than a desperate attempt to focus on anything other than prevailing political chaos—with a quite hilarious skit in which Aziz Ansari was arrested and brutally interrogated for not loving La La Land enough.
In following various social media threads on the subject, I was repeatedly struck by the earnest attempts to explicate La La Land’s “message.” I had rarely thought of musicals as message pictures, except for the BUY WAR BONDS slogan tacked on to any number of 1940s releases. If anything they functioned as advertisements for ultimate gratified desire, symbolized by song, dance, communal high spirits, and optical dazzlement. They belonged, insistently and without apology, to a domain of pleasure, and once in a long while of ecstasy, while still leaving room for a not unpleasing undercurrent of melancholy. To quarrel over the precise value of a particular musical might seem like arguing about the value of a day at Jones Beach or a round of pinball at an amusement arcade—both of them, as it happens, activities that have provided serviceable backdrops for movie musicals. If you don’t like it there is no particular reason to force yourself; if you do, you will require no justification to indulge. You can of course find messages of one sort or another scattered everywhere, in Follow the Fleet (“Let’s face the music and dance”), Good News (“The best things in life are free”), or The Band Wagon’s unassailable summing-up: “That’s entertainment!”
If a message must be found, for La La Land it is signposted in Mia’s plaintive and ultimately triumphant audition song: “Here’s to the ones who dream/Foolish as they may seem/Here’s to the hearts that ache/Here’s to the mess we make.” It is certainly an old enough message. In Gold Diggers of 1933, Dick Powell’s dream was to break away from his inherited wealth and prove himself as a Broadway tunesmith; in Moon Over Miami, Betty Grable’s dream was to meet a millionaire at a resort hotel; in Viva Las Vegas, Elvis Presley’s dream was to get enough money to buy a new engine for his racing car. Such dreams may not be enough to get you through life but they are enough to get you to the end of the picture. This time around the old formula is reconfigured, pointing to “the mess we make” as a signal that we have entered a more jagged era when the all-around satisfying wrap-up that worked out for Betty Grable at the candy-colored backlot Flamingo Hotel can no longer be managed or even daydreamed.
By the time this pivotal moment arrives, this last call for establishing that the film has really been about something more than the stylish resurrection of an old genre, La La Land is almost over. A few minutes more and we’re into the epilogue. Mia’s song—which in the film represents a go-for-broke improvisation on which the possibility of her career will stand or fall—has the effect of an emotional plea, an attempt to lay bare real vulnerability. For those dreamers she salutes “a little madness is key”: the word is more than a little jarring. Is it a kind of madness that we have been experiencing, or even the wilder reaches of fantasy? The trembling of her voice signals a temptation to shatter the very constraints that give the film its identity, to break down any distinction between the disillusioned contemporary world in which La La Land is set and the stylized parallel domain in which it fitfully unfolds.
In 1964 Jacques Demy—a crucial inspiration for Chazelle—attempted such a fusion in his third collaboration with Michel Legrand, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and succeeded so well that by the film’s halfway point a viewer may forget that every line of dialogue is sung, and that the naturalistic settings in which Demy’s film ostensibly takes place are as dreamlike in their color schemes as Oz: all has become equally real and equally unreal, with no sense of going back and forth between realms. La La Land takes up the challenge with its opening number, which begins with an empty sky and a cacophony of sounds that turns out to be the background noise of an LA freeway in full gridlock, with car radios all blaring their own distinct soundtracks.
A moment later and the drivers begin to emerge, staging a bravura hyperactive ensemble number (“Another Day of Sun”), complete with conga drummers and skateboarders, done seemingly in a single take. The point is unmistakably made that this is indeed a musical, a musical that in these first moments would seem to be a celebration of exuberant urban energy asserting itself against all odds. But it is a collectivity of mutual strangers, and we are to see nothing further of that kind. Crowds there will be, but they will not be joined in song. From this point the film will focus exclusively on the two people who are about to meet: Mia, who is rehearsing for an audition in her car, and Sebastian, who as the traffic starts moving pulls out impatiently in front of her, the startled Mia giving him the finger as he roars by.
Chazelle and Hurwitz have laid down a cadence that will be varied and elaborated in what follows, in a series of set pieces that track first Mia and then Sebastian after they exit the freeway: she working unhappily as a barista on the old Warner Bros. lot, undergoing humiliation at a failed audition, and being lured by her roommates to a lavish party where she is miserable; and he alone at his piano trying to master a passage by Thelonious Monk, then going off to the cocktail lounge gig where he is ordered to play nothing but Christmas carols and is likewise miserable. The moves that follow work variations on generic standbys. They meet again; he is rude to her again; winter turns to spring; they meet again at a poolside party where she finds him playing keyboard for a threadbare 1980s pop tribute band and takes the opportunity to repay his earlier rudeness with her own mockery; they find themselves at last on a hillside at dusk looking down at the city and ease their way into their first awkward romantic duet.
The rhythm of these scenes is more or less impeccable, jabbed along by a constant injection of new backgrounds (the huge film poster blow-ups decorating Mia’s apartment), new color schemes (the primary-colored party dresses of her and her roommates), shifts of scale and perspective, splashes and fireworks. That Gosling and Stone do not dazzle either as singers or dancers seems designed to give the proceedings a note of sincerity—they are almost as tentative as you or I—while the virtuosity of editing and camerawork take up the slack. This after all is what musicals must do to qualify at all: set in motion a machinery of linked cadences in which you are made to feel complicit, so that by the time it is done you have the illusion of having danced in some parallel world. It’s always a parallel world no matter how many real things and places are crammed into it. The freeway becomes a sound stage, just as the Brooklyn Navy Yard did in On the Town, in the primal fresh air moment of the postwar musical.
Chazelle comes to La La Land after two earlier movies that in very different ways foreshadow it. His first film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2010), was also a musical, of a New Waveish, cinéma vérité sort, filmed in 16mm and black and white while Chazelle was still a film student at Harvard, and taking an elliptical approach to its wisp of a love-triangle plot. The musical numbers, technically less ambitious, reinvent with their rough charm the shock of someone bursting unexpectedly into song, and with the trumpeter Jason Palmer as Guy the film is more persuasively imbued with jazz than Chazelle’s current offering.
The script for La La Land was in fact written right after Guy and Madeline, but could not find financing until the success of Chazelle’s next feature, Whiplash (2014), a skillful demonstration of skills that in many ways is as disagreeable as its successor is agreeable. The boot camp methods of an obsessive jazz teacher harsh enough to drive a student musician to suicide are depicted—indeed, mirrored—with a relentlessness that almost succeeds in making the very idea of music unappealing. Its rhythms—urged on by relentless up-tempo drum solos—are expertly sustained but the curious effect is of a kind of deliberate anti-musical.
Gosling’s Sebastian carries over some of Whiplash’s queasiness, with his permanent bad mood and his self-righteous disquisitions on jazz shunted aside only with difficulty to make room for the central love story. The love story is really all the story there is, as Chazelle has carefully eschewed subplots and serious complications and left wide deliberate gaps in backstory. Neither Sebastian nor Mia seems to have any close friends (her roommates recede from view after the early scenes), and there are no competing love interests to provide standard obstacles and jealous misunderstandings. At the outset Mia is given a boyfriend, an ambitious corporate type, but she seems completely indifferent to him and after she walks out of an insufferable dinner where there is knowing talk of an “Indonesia jungle eco-resort,” he is not heard from again. Likewise we are given only the vaguest hint that some earlier incident may have brought on Sebastian’s constant simmering resentment.
It’s all down to the two protagonists, and the only drama is whether they can let down their guard long enough to make a musical of it rather than a dispiriting study in self-protective mistrust. Emma Stone has a definite edge since her failed audition scenes, brief though they are, provide the film’s only real comedy, and seeing her carrying on in such chipper fashion in the face of the utter indifference of casting directors does create a bond of sympathy.
Ryan Gosling by contrast succeeds perfectly in delineating a character whom perhaps only Mia could love. It isn’t altogether clear whether the jazz club episode in which he lectures her on the origins of jazz (“born in a little flophouse in New Orleans”), while talking over the music as he complains about people who talk over the music, is meant as a parodic allusion to earlier Hollywood birth-of-the-blues riffs in pictures like Syncopation and Young Man with a Horn.
Nor is it clear whether we’re being encouraged to share this malcontent’s evident distaste for the pretty good jazz-funk ensemble for which he’s hired by his old acquaintance Keith (John Legend), a band whose success earns him good money and gives him a taste of commercial success. Legend certainly gets the better of their repartee when he tells Gosling: “How can you be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?”
Of course it doesn’t matter at all if Sebastian is the great pianistic talent he’s cracked up to be, any more than it matters if Mia’s one-woman play, whose catastrophic opening nearly sinks her career, is really so good that a top Hollywood agent would immediately want to audition her for a starring movie role. Classic musicals often contrive to make us identify with people we would not want to know if they were not characters in a musical: people who when they are not singing and dancing may be found whining, sulking, or indulging in bouts of insecure self-aggrandizement, nursing petty anxieties and lashing out in silly and abrasive lovers’ quarrels. It is only the fact of being characters in a musical that rescues their lives from treadmill emptiness.
The springtime of Mia and Sebastian’s love blossoms about halfway through the picture, as they leave an evening screening of Rebel Without a Cause—Mia is under Sebastian’s tutelage in cinema as well as music—and go off to the observatory in Griffith Park where back in 1955 James Dean had listened to a lecture on the end of the solar system. Magically they find themselves inside, dancing around a pendulum display, and then, under the same dome where Rebel’s apocalyptic forecast had been described, they whirl away among the galaxies, liberated from gravity and perhaps from their own personalities. There follows a montage of summer happiness—Watts Towers, the Angel’s Flight funicular—that comes across as a series of picture postcards.
With autumn the film inches away from these images of romantic bliss as Sebastian and Mia get down to the nuts and bolts of their respective dreams and the mood becomes less Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain and more Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli in Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York. Dancing on the ceiling gives way to the glumness of everyday wear and tear. The tensions explode in an obligatory central squabble designed to put both leads in as unattractive a light as possible, so that when Mia finally storms out in the aftermath of what was supposed to be a romantic one-night reunion in the middle of Sebastian’s tour there is a positive sense of relief that we no long have to be a party to their mutual recriminations. The musical has hit the ground, and the notion of a parallel world is thoroughly washed away in scenes that seriously contemplate the possibility that all of this will come to nothing, and that we will be left finally only with a portrait of two lonely careerists, with the emphasis on lonely. There seems to be nothing like a sustaining community in the offing for either of them, certainly none of the professional camaraderie found in Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon.
That give-and-take compensated for the pressures and disappointments that went with a career—in musicals, traditionally understood as a career in show business. (It was movie musicals in particular that always most effectively promoted the belief that a successful show business career was the summation of earthly bliss.) The faith in such a family of fellow troupers was indispensable to psychic survival in a cold world of exploitative producers and unsympathetic casting agents. The solitariness of Mia and Sebastian reflects the loss of such a faith. Where are the wisecracking showgirls and philosophical stagehands and veteran session men who would once have helped ease their pain? They have only each other, such as they are.
Which brings us again to Mia’s song and her moment of supreme doubt. One more failure and she will be annihilated. She will be one with the show biz dreamers evoked in the old Burt Bacharach–Hal David song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” (“LA is a great big freeway/Put a hundred down and buy a car/In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star”), the ones who ended up “parking cars and pumping gas.”
But this acknowledgment of unforgiving reality, of the likelihood that her dream will come to nothing, swivels neatly into the triumph of fantasy. The dream was real after all: Mia gets the part, becomes the star of a major film project, and in the twinkling of an eye it is “five years later” and she is an international celebrity like the one she waited on at the beginning of the movie, in the same coffee shop that she now strides into as a fawned-on customer. She has a husband, a beautiful child, and then, that very night, she walks with her husband into a jazz club and sees Sebastian at the mike. His dream has triumphed too. A happy ending, a double happy ending, but the wrong one. They get to have the career but not the love, and we are allowed to imagine that their success may be the final disaster.
That is not however the true ending. Chazelle has a better one, a movie within a movie that returns us to the parallel world of musicals—the world in which everything happened differently, the lovers never quarreled and were never parted, their careers bloomed together, not apart, in Paris of course, and they delight in home movies of the child they never had—sealing it all up securely in the dream of which it was always part. The domain of full-blown unreality that the film has all along wanted to inhabit is finally put on screen. By finding his way to this, Chazelle puts his last internal rhyme firmly in place, and makes La La Land something it would not otherwise have been. It seems like enough for one movie.
In a scene even more ephemeral than Mia’s final reverie of an alternate future, La La Land—which had already picked up six Oscars, with Emma Stone, Damien Chazelle, and Justin Hurwitz among the recipients—was announced as winner for Best Picture. Moments later, just after one of the film’s producers had declared that “repression is the enemy of civilization,” it emerged that due to a slip-up with the envelope (a goof thoroughly in line with classic musical plotting) the winner was Moonlight after all.
The disorganized spectacle, as La La Land producers Jordan Horowitz and Marc Platt struggled to persuade everybody that this was not a joke, and emotions in both camps were rapidly readjusted in full view of the television audience, made for some real theatrical excitement after a long evening that until then had run purringly and unastonishingly. Political declarations that in earlier years had been unscheduled disruptions here were a carefully calibrated part of the program. This included the commercial breaks, which provided a slickly produced array of advertisements for love, understanding, and tolerance, with the production’s main sponsor Cadillac assuming the unexpected role of a font of humanitarian values. The New York Times ran an advertisement—the most effective of the spots—for truth itself. Whatever uneasiness lay outside the hall, a surface of buoyant solidarity was generally maintained.
The last-reel confusion provided as perfect a chance-generated resolution as possible. The long-shot Moonlight, a favorite for many, was the beneficiary of a rare miraculous reversal—mirroring, but this time with a happy ending, the sort of last-ditch overturning so recently disappointed in the political sphere—while La La Land’s split-second moment of illusory triumph rhymed nicely with those bubbly evanescent ecstasies toward which musicals have always aspired.