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The 'La La Land' phenomenon

movie big mouth

If you painfully miss the time when a film is not all about establishing narrative verisimilitude and sequences of characters bursting into singing and dancing do not seem downright weird, you will probably worship Damien Chazelle’s "La La Land" as a glorious return to the golden age of Hollywood cinema. I watched La La Land on Dec. 20 in Memphis—weeks before it swept seven Golden Globes and received fourteen Oscar nominations. Undoubtedly, this was my most anticipated film during the award season of 2017. Showered with universal praise from the critics, it opened the Venice Film Festival on a high note and subsequently beat other major contenders at the Critic’s Choice Awards, including "Moonlight," "Nocturnal Animals" and "Manchester by the Sea."

For one thing, Chazelle’s filmmaking skills are just as demonstrably outstanding as his musical talent. The film’s opening sequence—a long take digitally connected by several Swish pans—is arguably one of the most memorable in the past ten years. It takes place during a traffic jam on a long stretch of L.A. freeway. Chazelle’s camera effortlessly tracks the commuters who, one by one, emerge from their cars, flipping and dancing around before they merge into a chorus that delivers the first musical number of the film, “Another Day of Sun.” I applauded furiously by the end of the sequence. In fact, I thought the sequence deserved a standing ovation. In a voluptuous fashion, the sequence sets the groundwork for the emotional state of the film, before it slowly transitions to moodiness and melancholia. Cinematically, the sequence’s incredibly precise and intricate execution is on par with Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork in "Children of Men" and "Gravity" in recent years.

But perhaps the opening of the film had set too high an expectation to which the rest of the movie failed to live up. I painfully felt something missing in the movie but I had to struggle to explain to my 12-year-old cousin why having two people literally dancing on air against a starry night was not something “weird.” On a fundamental level, the story of "La La Land" was simple—perhaps too simple, with two protagonists whose souls were clearly rooted in the idealistic past. Seb (played by Ryan Gosling), who is a jazz purist about his musical ideology and Mia (played by Emma Stone), who dreams like an old movie star, meet, fall in love with each other and, expectedly, break up—at least for a while. After a series of gorgeous dance-and-song numbers, the movie is conventionally over.

Herein lies the primary criticism of the film—it’s a bit too dull. The dramatic actions of the movie barely constitute a one-act play. As the audience patiently waits for something to push the plot forward, the vast separation of time slowly dissipates the energy splashed so furiously in the first third of the movie.

While the characters of Seb and Mia are certainly charming, Chazelle seems to be more interested in the ideas they represent rather than a deep study of their psychology. Compared to the exceptionally compelling characters in his previous Whiplash, Seb and Mia are more of gorgeous emblems of the “fools who dream,” or the successes of a certain kind. This explains why the events and emotions in the movie seem rather preprogrammed. Events just happen, without any explicit explanation of the conflicts or fascinating details of the process. Whereas Whiplash details how the obsession of an artist leads him to sacrifice and self-destruction, "La La Land" is nonchalant to the potentially fascinating lives of its characters. For instance, Mia’s preparation for her one-woman show is only covered in a series of cross-dissolved montage, but there is nothing about the process of rehearsing, arranging and possibly interacting with other people in the business to make the show possible. What is so particular and complex about this business that stops her from realizing her dreams? Chazelle seems to be only interested in the outcome—that the show is disastrous and the audience laughs at her, which predictably leads to the next event—the break-up.

Moreover, given his musical background, Chazelle is evidently more adept at using his music, rather than images, to tell the story. Extending the delight and euphoria set by the opening song, Chazelle further captures the high-spirited L.A. lifestyle in an equally peppy song “Someone in the Crowd.” Then, arguably the most memorable song of the movie, “City of Stars” fuses romance with light melancholy, reflecting the emotional arc of the characters. Finally, Mia’s soulful engagement in singing her “Audition” is a personal statement about her character and the familiar “hold-on-to-your-dream” motif of the film. By contrast, the images of the movie seem nothing beyond simply pleasing to look at. The cinematic movement, composition, lighting, and colors are swooning and beautiful, yet they hardly serve the purpose of storytelling. In particular, the use of color seems too arbitrary and violent at times. The quarrel scene of Seb’s surprise dinner is lit in almost exactly the same way as the hotel room scene in Vertigo, both featuring cyan-colored neon lights filtering through the window. While Hitchcock associated his Madeline with cyan and uses the color to add an uncanny and ghostly quality for the scene, the same color used in a scene in which a couple dine and conflict looks rather purposeless, if not out of place.

Finally, we have to answer the most important question raised in this article—has "La La Land" truly revived the musical genre, or at least, represented some form of return to greatness? In multiple ways, the film has paid too much its virtuoso tribute to "Singin’ in the Rain." Yet, the former demonstrably lacks the wit, humor and respect to characters and storytelling as presented in the 1952 classic musical. Chazelle seeks to celebrate, to woo and to impress, rather than to inspire, adhering the bygone techniques and mannerism popular in the 40s and 50s—the heyday of the American musical.

If John Legend’s statement about jazz encapsulates Chazelle’s mission to produce a musical, “Jazz is not about the past—it is about the future,” then Chazelle has ironically failed at just that. The film is precisely too much about the formalism of the past—its methods, its mannerisms and its taste of beauty, which have overtaken Chazelle’s original artistry as a modern storyteller. Perhaps, however, this article has criticized the film for the wrong reasons: the year of 2016 is an apocalyptic time. It is not a surprise that Hollywood adores a film like "La La Land" and the comeback of its most escapist genre. Hence, I continue to believe that "La La Land" will sweep the Oscars (perhaps excepting best original screenplay and lead actor) and, hopefully, will cause more audiences to say, “What a glorious feeling. I’m happy again.”

Robin Wang is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "movie big mouth" runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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