Let’s Face the Music and Dance

La La Land

a film written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Patrick T. Fallon/The New York Times/Redux
Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, accepting the Oscar for Best Picture with the film’s cast and crew, after La La Land was incorrectly announced as the winner, Los Angeles, February 2017

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…

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