The whole fiasco with the mix-up for best picture at the Oscar ceremonies prompts me to draw attention to the winner-turned-loser La La Land. I’m not arguing that La La Land should have won over Moonlight. What I want to explore are the reactions to the film, variously perceived as if people were viewing a Rorschach inkblot test, primarily by those who’ve seen it, and also by those who just have opinions on it from what they’ve heard or read.
First, yes it is a musical. My nephew didn’t even know that. His sister did. When I suggested, indeed, implored her to see it, this mid-twenties Chicago native, recently relocated to Los Angeles, a single female with a nascent career texted back, “Hahaha, you know I hate musicals.” I asked her to try it anyway, with her boyfriend. She said she didn’t know if she could take Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone singing at each other for two or three hours. I said there was plenty of dancing too, and more than a reasonable amount of dialogue, taking up much of the film’s length of 128 minutes.
Second, no, the dancing and singing is not up to the super-stars of the original Hollywood musicals, when the actors were under contract. Producers more commonly expected them to master the triple skills of acting, singing and dancing, much like performers in Broadway musicals of the time. The actors cast in the film have the charm of the young people of yore “putting on a show” and the looks of traditional movie stars, with the necessary acting chops, if not quite their dancing feet or tuneful voices. The choreographer Mandy Moore has said she designed steps within the range of the actors’ capacities. The two stars still exceed an average actor’s level of performance in both song and dance. After all, at twelve, the leading man became a Mouseketeer.
On the music itself, a supposed turn-off for a large segment of the movie-going population, it is integrated more into the plot than in a typical musical comedy. In auditioning for a crucial part, the lead actress is able to naturally sing a number about the process, and in the club scenes, our leading man plays tunes on his keyboard that relate to the plot, along with his other solo piano turns, with or without an accompanying band. On the tunes, the composer tried out a multitude of melodies with the director before they settled on those for the film. Not to equate “City of Stars” with one of the best pop songs ever written although it won the Oscar for best song, it has the flavor of “Imagine” by John Lennon, or maybe the dreamers of "Audition" exit side-by-side with those "lovers and dreamers" in another catchy tune, “The Muppet Song.” My favorite, the joyful “Another Day of Sun” that accompanies the opening crowd dance on the LA freeway, plays through my earphones when I'm outside. It literally has me skipping along in rhythm, while I whistle or sing, roughly in tune, to nearly the whole soundtrack, risking stares from passers-by.
Having grown up with the first rounds of movie musicals, watching them on television with my parents, my own reaction to this modern concoction is pure pleasure. I find the themes of relationship and career far from lightweight, but close to what couples have confronted since the idea of the traditional wife melted away for many with the women’s movement. Achieving success in the arts is another central idea, with attendant compromises along the path. People who haven’t seen the film have objected to the flimsiness of the film’s motifs, the rom com aspects they’ve assumed. One woman at an intermission of a play-reading asked me how I could even go to such a film “in these times.” I asked her if she meant post-election, and she nodded, calling such attendance “inappropriate,” and even “immoral.” Because of her I googled a few pieces on art and politics, a large subject encompassing many points of view. One that I like is people need relief from serious business, at least occasionally, which is why so many comedies came out of the Great Depression, along with the original musicals. This woman had deep lines in her face all pointing downward, until I saw her after the play reading, which happened to have a happy ending. She introduced herself by name, almost seeming to apologize for the hard line she took earlier.
A woman who I would have predicted to enjoy the movie had a serious criticism related to the themes of the flim. She feels the Hollywoodized aspirations of the two leads are unrealistic and that the film ignores the underside of the movie industry. Having lived in LA, she saw children of her friends who bought into the dream hired to work in the industry for low pay and little if any chance of advancement. In contrast, a young married entrepreneur from Philadelphia living out his dreams of independence running an online business happily endorses the goals of finding long-lasting love and fulfilling work portrayed in the film.
The two stars garner individual reactions, with Ryan Gosling the better known, perhaps in his longer career. Two men roughly forty years apart in age liked him in the role of Sebastian, for very different reasons. The younger guy thinks he represents the old Hollywood ideal of the leading man. The older man, a veteran Marine told me Ryan goes beyond the stoic one-dimensional heroes of many films, even those of today. I asked if he thought Ryan was more “realistic,” and he agreed. Winner of the best actress Oscar, Emma Stone didn’t elicit admiration from the younger man. He finds her too far away from the glamorous divas of the old musicals. The same twenty-something year old is disappointed by the attempt to remake the musical in a modern vernacular, whereas the sixty-something vet appreciates the reworking, having expected a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers-like vehicle.
That brings me to the ending of the movie, (*spoiler alert*) which a younger friend admired, and an older male really hated. The older man felt “betrayed.” He said he just likes happy endings. I think he felt that because the film went against his life pattern, finding his true love very early, having two sons, and living happily ever after, still married to his first and only wife. Another acquaintance’s mother felt the last fifteen minutes ruined the sprightly spirit of the rest of the film. For some of us, that just isn’t how life goes. We call the ending brilliant, an unexpected surprise, really encapsulating how in life, as the ex-Marine told me, “You have to leave people and things behind,” and move forward. To me, the ending turns La La Land into a truly serious, meaningful film, and also clinches the best actress award for Emma Stone as Mia, as she looks back in time. A film about Hollywood, made in Hollywood pulls a twist on the typical Hollywood ending, ultimately remaking the youthful, casual world of La La Land fully and finally into the grown-up domain of Los Angeles, California, 2016.