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‘La La Land’ Deserves Your Respect: Why Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-Bound Musical Is A Dream Come True

Too often dismissed as an unfettered homage to the Technicolor musicals of the 1950s, “La La Land” is far more nuanced than it seems.

"La La Land"

“La La Land”

Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

Anyone who isn’t poised to win the Oscar for Best Director is certainly entitled to hate Damien Chazelle, and there’s not an openly fascistic executive order in the world that can stop them. But, as of late, the infuriatingly accomplished “La La Land” mastermind has been making it very difficult to do so. As if it weren’t frustrating enough that his sensational, stimulating new film is a quantum leap forward from the comparatively airless “Whiplash,” Chazelle further endeared himself to many by giving the rare awards show acceptance speech that actually engendered a deeper appreciation for the honoree’s work.

Accepting the Best Picture prize from the New York Film Critics Circle, the mustached wunderkind pandered to the audience with the same crowd-pleasing cinephilia that’s been squeezed into every frame of his box office phenomenon. Instantly grabbing the room’s attention, his remarks began by name-checking legendary American filmmaker Frank Borzage, and then — at length, and in great detail — unpacking the plot of the influential auteur’s most famous melodrama.

1927’s “Seventh Heaven,” Chazelle reminded us, is a love story starring Charles Farrell as a soldier who dies in World War I, and Janet Gaynor as the widow who refuses to accept the fact that her husband is gone. Chazelle was seized by the spirit: “Her friends, her family tell her she’s crazy, stop dreaming, be realistic, get on with your life.” But she doesn’t, and the film rewards her magical thinking. Rather then end on a note of realistic despair, “Seventh Heaven” abruptly cuts back to the battlefield. “Charles Farrell is suddenly alive, inexplicably, and makes his way back home. The last scene, he comes home, they kiss, swell of music, fade to black.” From there, Chazelle enumerated the various possible explanations for such a fanciful finale, ultimately settling on the most cinematic of them all: Farrell’s character was both dead and alive, sustained in between this world and the next by an emotional force that overpowered the cruel dictums of time and space. 

If you’ve seen Chazelle’s tinseltown opus — and of course you have then you can appreciate the broad parallels between the heart-stopping climax of “Seventh Heaven” and the similarly illogical sequence with which “La La Land” crescendoes to its a close. After nearly two hours of twirling around one another, Mia the aspiring actress (Emma Stone) and Sebastian the jazz obsessive (Ryan Gosling) seem to have disentangled and gone their separate ways. Five years have passed since the last time they saw each other, but a chance encounter at Sebastian’s jazz club — the dream that Mia once encouraged him to pursue — briefly knots them back together.

Their eyes meet, Sebastian sits at the piano so he can plunk out the bittersweet melody that has become their theme music, and suddenly we slip through a hyper-stylized wormhole that returns us to the start of the story and and dances us down the road not traveled. Mia and Sebastian’s affair is exhumed and idealized to the extreme, Chazelle reimagining their time together as a picture-perfect diorama of love in motion, and the effect could be thought of as Schrödinger’s romance — for those 10 glorious minutes, Mia and Sebastian are simultaneously both apart and together, in much the same way as Charles Farrell was both dead and alive.

It’s a bravura sequence, one that returns “La La Land” to its supposed genre while also completing the film’s freewheeling conversation with the form. But while the finale is clearly Chazelle’s pièce de résistance, the spire atop his shimmering monument to movie musicals, it would be a mistake to think of this epilogue as an ornamental touch. From the wry irony of the deceptively exuberant opening sequence (in which dozens of starry-eyed wannabes dazzle us with their dreams and then, as winter arrives in a city without seasons, promptly disappear into the ether) to the way in which Mia and Seb all but step into the screen after a sputtering projector abandons them halfway through “Rebel Without a Cause,” the entire film is engaged in a self-aware soft-shoe around the amorphous border between fantasy and reality.

"La La Land"

“La La Land”

Dale Robinette

The movies, Chazelle constantly reminds us, have always been the shared province of both fiction and truth — they’re dreams that we can have in the daytime — and their unique ability to reconcile those two contradictory dimensions is the very thing that allows the medium to see us as we really are. By using the most disruptively fantastical of genres as a way of underscoring the ways in which those forces can overlap and pull apart, Chazelle has made a film that sees us more clearly than we’re often able to see ourselves.

Often dismissed as an unfettered homage to the Technicolor musicals of the 1950s, “La La Land” eventually proves itself to be something far more nuanced and conflicted than that. A romance about movies that wilts into a movie about romance, the film hums with a sense of self-doubt that subverts its surface pleasures and steers its vision closer to the melancholy of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” or the violent revisionism of “Dancer in the Dark” than it does the relative guilelessness of “Singin’ in the Rain.”

As Mia and Seb fall in love and grow apart, duet together and then become discordant, it grows increasingly clear that Chazelle isn’t just celebrating the spirit of Hollywood and all of the stars that shine above it, he’s also using their glow to try and illuminate why people struggle to live with the things they love. Chazelle’s film is a bravely uncertain and explicitly modern fantasia that isn’t afraid to ask if dreams and reality can ever co-exist as harmoniously as they do in the movies.

Damien Chazelle on the set of "La La Land"

Director Damien Chazelle on the set of “La La Land”

Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

“La La Land” picks Mia and Seb out of a traffic jam as if honing in on the most basic people it can find, and Chazelle has the discipline to reduce his characters down to their most basic desires. Like just about everyone else in L.A., these young dreamers are not young enough; they’re beautiful enough to fit in but struggling to stand out. And like just about everyone else in L.A., they think the spotlight should shine on them, or at least they’re plagued by the fanciful idea that it could.

Mia is the less eccentric of the pair. In fact, she doesn’t have enough of a personality to be eccentric at all. She’s a type — that’s how the casting directors would think of her if they ever bothered to look up from their phones — bussed in from wherever and waiting for something to happen. But her eyes are as big as the Os in the Hollywood sign, and Chazelle has fun showing us how the world looks through them.

Seb is fucking insufferable. He’s also charming to the extreme. A petulant jazz obsessive whose job requires him to sit in the middle of a restaurant, plunk out holiday-themed piano muzak, and altogether disappear into the furniture, he’s the living personification of white noise, and he’d be intolerable if not for the tiny detail that he happens to be Ryan Gosling. More than anything, Seb feels like a self-deprecating riff on the man who wrote him.

"La La Land"

“La La Land”

Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

Before it was transformed by its status as an Oscar frontrunner and inflated into a cultural touchstone big enough to fill the zeitgeist — before it became the only movie in history that managed to inspire reactions from the holy trinity of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Slavoj Žižek, and “Saturday Night Live” — “La La Land” was just a very personal story by a young, preternaturally successful filmmaker who wanted to explore his own place in the entertainment machine, and perhaps also his outsized affection for two musical forms that have given him more than he could ever give back in return.

Jazz is admittedly an uneasy vehicle for the ideas that the film wants to play with and poke around. Seb’s obsession is helpful in removing him from Mia’s world, but it ultimately does more to distract from the Hollywood setting than it does to flesh it out. But I doubt that Chazelle ever had much of a choice in the matter. Had the director grown up to be an obsessive fan of practical special effects, for example, perhaps Seb could have worshipped Ray Harryhausen’s paintbrush instead of Hoagie Carmichael’s stool. But that’s not who Chazelle is, that’s not what he cares about, and if he had been able to so easily disassociate himself from his personal predilections, “La La Land” could never have been such a genuine portrait of the difficulty with which we disentangle ourselves from our dreams.

None of this does anything to absolve that outstanding issues of representation that have come to dominate the chatter around the film. Even a most generous reading of “La La Land” can’t justify the optics of that shot where Mia is surrounded by a crowd of awed black onlookers. But Chazelle’s blind spots have a backhanded way of serving the specificity of his vision, for better worse. We don’t own the things that we love; more often than not, it’s the other way around.

Indeed, it’s reasonable to infer that Seb’s infatuation with jazz is at least partially motivated by the fact that it isn’t his to keep (or “save”). He was born at an arm’s length from it, separated from the source by time and race and a million hardships that he’s never had to experience for himself, and that’s a key part of its appeal. He’s not a purist so much as he is a romantic; he keeps the music in the past because that’s the only place where it can remain perfect. After all, the only thing that Seb’s love for jazz couldn’t survive is the thought that jazz might not love him back.

“La La Land”

The movie has engendered a lot of criticism for how it dramatizes Mia and Seb’s slow-motion breakup. In a genre where every emotion is performed for the people in the back row, the scene where Chazelle’s couple begins to pull apart is surprisingly opaque. It’s the first (and arguably only) conflict in their relationship, the first thing that complicates the staid and scrappy love story they’re telling themselves about two dreamers who believe in each other. It’s a mid-air collision between fantasy and reality, and it happens right at the moment when the giddiness of a mutual crush is settling into the routine of a serious relationship.

Mia goes to see Seb perform his first gig with the Messengers, and the concert begins with our jazz-loving male lead exactly where he pictures himself in his fantasies: Alone on stage with a spotlight haloed around him. But then the electric cheese-whizz music kicks in, the lights flare up, and Seb is revealed to be surrounded by a huge band of trumpeters, saxophonists, and background singers. The crowd goes wild, but Mia is crestfallen.

Other than the medley at the end, this is the most important scene in the film; not just because it sends the story spiraling into its second half, but because the song that the Messengers play is catchy as hell. Mileage will naturally vary on that score, but  “Start a Fire” is clearly not intended to be a satirical dig at whatever it is that Keith and his band are supposed to represent (John Legend was proud enough to perform it at the NBA All-Star Game, a choice that challenges the assumption that Chazelle intended for people to perceive the tune as chintzy garbage).

Film theorist and historian David Bordwell describes Keith as “Mostly a mouthpiece for a musical idiom,” and that’s accurate, but it doesn’t make the character a straw man. He’s an improviser, an artist, a musician who can listen to a song and take it where the world wants it to go — Keith is jazz as Seb reveres it, but not as he can accept it for himself.

“La La Land”

“How are you gonna be a revolutionary when you’re such a traditionalist?” he rhetorically asks Seb, posing a question that the movie will wrestle with for the rest of its running time and then leave us with as a souvenir. How do you make way for tomorrow when you’re so hung up on yesterday? How do you become someone else when you’re so anchored to who you were?

With “La La Land,” Chazelle has made the rare movie that isn’t afraid to shine a light into the infinite void between the strength of our emotions and the uncertainty of our choices. Watching the film’s wistful final moments, which make certain that Mia and Seb get everything they’ve ever wanted except each other, “La La Land” transports us to a uniquely cinematic place where time has a heartbeat and the people shine like stars, beaming down on us long after they’re gone. It knows that just because we’re not with someone doesn’t mean that they’re not with us. It knows that the only dreams we get to keep are the ones that don’t come true.

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