Movie Review & Reflection: LA LA LAND
Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.
Do you have to enjoy Hollywood musicals to enjoy LA LA LAND? Yes and No. YES, if you have ever had the urge to break into a song and dance in moment of comfort and joy. YES, if you enjoy dancing and appreciate it as one of humanity’s greater pleasures. YES, if you have a trace of nostalgia for that great AN AMERICAN IN PARIS ballet. (I956, MGM, Gene Keely, Leslie Caron; available on Blu Ray and Streaming.) Director Damien Chazelle and Choreographer Mandy Moore’s (not the actress /singer) song and dance finale (almost finale) is a tribute to that ballet and it’s charming and magical. But, oh, how I wish they had kept the company dancing in a flowing, ever-enlarging dance spectacle. So. If you answered YES to all the above: GO! If you answered “No” because you are the kind of person who interiorizes your moments of joy and/or never add a dance to your step or skip about for the fun of it, or find musicals silly, silly, silly, then stay home. But before you settle in beside your Christmas / Hanukkah fire, be forewarned: there’s more to LA LA LAND than song and dance.
LA LA LAND focuses on the creative artistry, goals and objectives of two young lovers who, as they fall in love, exemplify the simple joys of love, music and art for their own sake. These segments are the heart of the film and offer its greatest pleasures (the “almost-finale” notwithstanding). Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, the consummate jazz pianist seeking ART not popularity, and he plays the role well. As always, he’ a photogenic, attractive leading man and, in this film, he even has a dancer’s physique so when he glides aspiring actress Mia (the charming Emma Stone) into the gentle choreography of a starlit summer night, it all seems (almost) natural. Now don’t expect Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers because Gosling and Stone are not polished professional dancers or singers. But that reality is precisely one of the points this movie makes: Don’t leave everything to the professionals! Sing a little, dance a little. Walk on the “Sunny Side of the Street.” (Or live in Los Angeles along with everyone else who wants to be Fred and Ginger who never get to sing or dance or act for pay and just keep basking in the sunshine year-round.)
The First Act of LA LA LAND could be tighter. Gosling and Stone have chemistry, so we would have a lot more fun if the sparks of antagonism, approach/avoidance were ignited more fully at the onset. (There’s a moment after the opening number where you think the sparks will fly but the script postpones the joy.) Instead we get a good deal of the clichés of “the struggling artist.” (The limited National Endowment for the Arts notwithstanding – will Americans ever truly support the ARTS in Education and local communities beyond buying high-priced concert tickets?) But once Sebastian and Mia’s romance is in bloom, the film enchants and gives us a bit of punch, too, in some very well acted dramatic scenes. Odd for a musical but it’s these dramatic scenes that help us care about the couple and give us reason to want to care more. The songs they and others sing are better than serviceable but I found only a couple memorable. I liked the ballads CITY OF STARS, the emotional and dramatic context of FOOLS WHO DREAM (engaging lyrics) and the rhythmic START A FIRE, the latter enhanced by the performance of John Legend, a most welcomed guest star. The jazz arrangements and orchestrations for all the numbers are excellent. (Music by Justin Herwitz, Songs by Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul.)
LA LA LAND is a Hollywood Musical more about the ordinary than the glamorous, more about the reality than fantasy of show business. Meanwhile, it kind of insists that we keep romance and music in the picture. As it is in this picture, may it be in YOUR picture, too.
Questions for Discussion:
- Now most people would agree that “popular’ isn’t necessarily better (although it can be). BUT how can creative people earn their living when their work does not prove popular, remunerative or classifiable as genius?
- Is it a waste of time to attend to things you enjoy (especially singing, dancing, acting/ play-acting) if you are merely good but not spectacular at them?
- Can people follow their bliss, carve out a generative, joyful life without having to be on the big screen, the great white way or go viral streaming on the internet? Must there always be an audience for every act of creativity? (Can “ART” be its own reward?)
- Our competitive culture practically demands SUCCESS. How do you identify it? Is it all relative? How important is it to you? Is it the same as recognition (an important human dynamic) or is it recognition-run-amuck?
- No one wants to be “left behind.” No one wants to be taken for granted yet society offers a living template of “winners” and “losers.” Who “wins” and who “loses” in LA LA LAND? Sebastian or Mia? Director / Writer Damien Chazelle or YOU as a moviegoer?