Written before the Oscars nominations were announced. Not that that matters. I am not one easily swayed by the mob. Usually.
There was this studio executive, famous for habitually raining on everyone’s imaginatorial parade. I once described her darkening presence as being “like a spider on a birthday cake.”
Having previewed my observations about La La Land in my head, I fear that in this context that might also describe me.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who performed similar duties on the acclaimed 2014 movie Whiplash – touting the value of sadism as an acceptable educational devise – La La Land is what I see as a “participatory musical”, in which regular people – or at least more regular than the consummate movie musical geniuses of yesteryear – dress up (in their fashion) and put on a show, complete with singing and dancing, although registering closer on the continuum to “I could to that” than to “How do they do that?”
Let me be clear here. This post is not about “They did it better before”, the “it” in this case being movie musicals. Nothing competes with the heart-lightening Singin’ in the Rain nor rivals the enchantment of The Wizard of Oz. Still, every generation reinvents the movie musical to its cultural specifications. We are not inevitably frozen at the formalized white tie and tails.
Check out YouTube. People do not want to be left out; they want to do it themselves… minus the decades of grueling preparation and punishing sacrifice. Uh-oh, Grumpelskiltskin, rearing his nostalgical head. Okay, I’ll be good.
I recall – wait, I have to look up the year… okay, 2001… Really? I thought it was older than that – a movie called Moulin Rouge, which I loved for the first forty-five minutes. Unfortunately, Moulin Rouge ran a hundred and twenty-eight minutes.
Moulin Rouge, at the beginning, was a knowing parody of movie musicals. However, as the storyline played out, Moulin Rouge morphed into the type of movie it originally satirized. And not a great version of the type of movie it originally satirized to boot.
I was heartily disappointed. I had considerably better times watching cinematic adaptations of Cabaret and Chicago, both freshly imagined while remaining true to their theatrical antecedents. No parody. But no surrender.
La La Land… wait.
Here’s a question for you.
If you make a contemporary “gangbanger” movie, it is open to criticism for being overly violent?
If you make Dumb and Dumber, is it fair to complain, “That’s stupid”?
“Violent” and “stupid” are exactly what they were going for. Yet, the better they did it, the more vulnerable they were to rebuke. That doesn’t seem right, does it? If Dumb and Dumber were inherently less dumb and dumber, it would not just be Dumb and Dumber, it would be Dumb and Dumber and bad. The negative reaction suggests they did the “dumbness” just right.
It’s the same thing – he submits in this venue – with “superficial.”
La La Land is about not particularly deep people with not particularly deep aspirations – making their dreams of show biz triumphancy come true. If these not particularly earthshaking aspirations are portrayed accurately, does that mean the filmmakers did a great job – presenting quintessentially shallow characters following their dreams – or they did an inadequate job, for not exploring to the psychological underpinnings of their characters?
Oh, and throw this in. Maybe La La Land’s intentional “superficiality” was a Moulin Rouge-type parody, the filmmakers mocking the superficiality of earlier musicals. If it was, there were no identifying signals of that intention. And more importantly, they failed, La La Land, like Moulin Rouge, ultimately falling for its own magic trick.
Truth be told, although I cannot definitively put my finger on it – though it’s in the area of “Who cares about show biz aspirations?” – though I found it moderately appealing, I was not transported by La La Land.
But I’ll tell you something. Sometimes, it’s not the movie. When I saw it, I may have just been not in the appropriate mood. Particularly with delicate material, it is necessary to meet the production half way; otherwise, the fluff is shruggingly unpersuasive, the soufflé falling thuddingly flat. In a more buoyant demeanor, I might have eaten it up. A lot of other folks did.
You know, when I’d attend network meetings after delivering a draft of a pilot script, some presiding network executive would occasionally say, “It looks like you had a lot of fun writing this.”
“Red Flag” – If they said that, they invariably never bought the pilot.
The likable actors on La La Land, free to sing and dance up a storm, looked like they had a blast making the movie.
Like those network executives, however,
I simply wasn’t a buyer.