Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Cinematographer: Linus Sandgren
Producer: Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, Gary Gilbert, and Marc Platt
by Jon Cvack
I had watched Hello, Dolly prior to seeing this film following a few other musicals I checked out throughout the year - including both Anchors Aweigh and On the Town - gaining a renewed interest in a genre which I never really cared about; discovering the incredible amounts of money poured into their production. Take the budget from any WWII epic film (such as Where Eagles Dare or The Longest Day) and apply it to these classical musicals. Everything’s is large - the song and dance numbers, the production design, the costumes, even the sheer amount of people. Hello, Dolly took the strategy and ran, creating one of greatest production values I’ve ever seen on screen. Aside from a few intimate dialogues, not a single shot in this movie is small, deserving every one of its seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, and winning Best Score, Best Song, and Best Art Direction.
I keep hearing people proclaim how incredulous they are that a musical like La La Land could be created in 2016, and I keep directing them to watch some of the classical musicals, realizing how muted the genre has become. Every decade has its handful of phenomenal musicals, and while the 2010s had been kind of slim pickings, there are way too many people with a short term memory here, which is causing a much larger response to La La Land than is perhaps deserving. If movies like Once, Beauty and the Beast, or Sound of Music surrounded the release I wonder what the response would be.
Counter to the bank busting epic musicals, this is an indie film that just so happens to be a musical, featuring two amazing actors exploring an issue initially presented in Whiplash - which is how much should a person sacrifice when chasing their dreams? In Whiplash we had Andrew Neiman who dreamed of being remembered for his jazz chops, willing to sacrifice anything anyone to achieve that notoriety. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’” is what the instructor says, which Andrew takes completely to heart. Aside from there being dozens of words more dangerous is the fact that no one seemed to acknowledge the dangers of this sentiment. What made me concerned about the film is that it masked a very selfish and dangerous attitude behind exciting musical sequences.
La La Land kind of does the same thing, except explores the consequences within the pursuit of show business fame. I kind of saw it as an alternative universe for Andrew and Nicole’s relationship in Whiplash, who he dumps to pursue his dream. Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who’s been out in Los Angeles for six years. She’s on the audition grind that, the older I get and the longer I'm in LA, the more I respect any actor's stamina, where you are treated like a steer, brought in and evaluated as superficially as possible. Sure, talent’s important, but the baseline amount of talent required still leaves tens of hundreds, if not more, competing for the few slots.
On the other side of town is aspiring jazz pianist and/or jazz club owner Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), who’s been hustling piano gigs from to club to club, playing nothing but Christmas jingles during the holidays, witnessing the descent of jazz all around him, especially at an old, once famous jazz club where Charlie Parker use to play, inspiring him to want to buy the building and name it Chicken on a Stick - Chicken as in Bird; Charlie Parker’s nickname (which you might remember from Whiplash). After getting fired for refusing to play Christmas music, he’s now on the grind, taking a job playing in an 80s cover band for a Hollywood Hills house party, where he meets Mia.
It was this entire rising action of the two dancing around how they actually feel toward one another, with Mia dating some superficial rich guy with nothing to talk about that first pulled me out of the film. Of all the actresses I know and have met, I can’t imagine any of them even kind of dating someone like this, especially when a person like Ryan Gosling comes into the picture - not just with his looks, but that playful, smirking flirtation and oozing creativity. It’s not that Mia’s boyfriend should have been removed so much as it could have at least been a more complex relationship with a mildly interesting person. In one scene Mia is at a table, the camera focused on her as her boyfriend and his brother and wife talk about business and vacation spots and other uninteresting things. Then there was a scene at the cafe where a woman wants to know - in pure LA fashion - if her croissant is gluten free and it all felt kind of cheap compared to the rest of the film which drew up these fascinating characters and dance numbers.
Mia and Sebastian eventually end up together, and that’s when I was absolutely blown away from every single moment I saw from there on out. Sebastian eventually takes a gig with his old college rival Keith (John Legend), who plays a type of new age jazz that’s a few steps above how terrible smooth jazz is, but not so bad that we’re laughing at it. While Sebastian’s far from fulfilled, it pays well and the band is getting popular; however he's forced to tour around the country nonstop; home for only a few days at a time. Mia isn’t getting any further with acting, growing all the more frustrated, and decides to write her own one-woman show to try and expedite the process.
In one of the film’s greatest scenes Mia and Sebastian fight about what the future holds. Sebastian explains that once the tour is over he’ll have to come home and write another album, working long days for months on end, to then have to return to the brutal touring regiment. It’s here that we get a taste of the grim reality of dream chasing. It’s something I never would have thought of, and something I would tell anyone aspiring to leave their family and chase a passion - when the years go by and you realize that you’re not one of the lucky few to strike gold early, you find yourself faced with living a life far different than you expected, and hopefully you can maintain your relationships. I’m fortunate to have three amazing best friends out here, two of them I grew up with back home in Chicago. Somehow we all ended up out in California, seeing each other regularly. I have a girlfriend who also works in entertainment, and fortunately understands the long hours and commitment it takes, having all the patience in the world. I can never imagine sacrificing those relationships for a dream, but I also can’t imagine any of them ever asking me to. That is what love is to me: a complete reciprocation and understanding, and out here, when I might not see my girlfriend for a week due to different schedules, it’s when love matters most. Because they’re still there.
Stay tuned for part 2...
BELOW: Is Sebastian just an older Andrew Neiman?
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Thoughts on films, old and new
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