A movie of sweetness and light
In this day and age—of cynicism and pessimism—and in this season in our national life—of fear of “tokhang” and the rule of casual cruelty and lies—we need a movie like “La La Land.”
Locally, movies like “Saving Sally” and “Sunday Beauty Queen” proved to be welcome distractions, sweet and touching and honest explorations of the human condition and the power of love. “La La Land,” a product of the entertainment behemoth that is Hollywood, defies the stereotype and gives us two hours or so of escape and innocence. And like the two local productions, provides the needed lightness in a season of grief and disgust. And like the two protagonists who float in the night sky and cavort among the stars, we end up floating on illusions of possibilities and dreams.
As filmmaker Damien Chazelle tells it, the movie had a long, difficult gestation. He wrote the screenplay in 2010, inspired by the golden age of Hollywood musicals “to pay homage and salute people with an unrealistic state of mind, who move to Los Angeles to chase their dreams.”
But like the protagonists in the movie in his mind, Chazelle and his partners met countless obstacles, including producers who wanted him to change the identities of the lead characters and the ending he had written. Along the way, he was distracted by an offer to make a film about an aspiring drummer and his abusive mentor (“Whiplash”) whose success finally brought him and his movie to the attention of the right producers.
In this sense, “La La Land” could be called a “Cinderella” film. It is a film that struggled to get made according to the vision of its creators, and once filming began, had to cope with a change of cast members and the cynicism of onlookers who believed the movie musical was a genre that had outlived its usefulness and public appeal.
And to make things even riskier, one of the lead characters is a jazz musician, not even a fusion jazz exponent (that he briefly becomes) but a firm adherent of “classic” and therefore inaccessible jazz.
Despite the odds and the barriers, “La La Land” is a sweet success. Its winning and winsome story about two struggling artists finding each other amid the hustle and hubris that surround them in Hollywood is timeless, transcending even the hard edges of contemporary romance, or what passes for it.
And the leads—Ryan Gosling as the struggling musician and Emma Stone as the aspiring actress—embody both the raring ambition of most of those who find their way to Hollywood seeking to leave their mark on the world, as well as the bright-eyed optimism that allows them to soldier on despite the indifference of those who hold their fates in their hands.
Indeed, I loved how Chazelle managed to hark back to the golden age of lavish musicals while imbuing his movie, set in the present day, with the hard truths of life in the entertainment capital.
“La La Land” is a nickname given not just to Los Angeles and Hollywood but also to the entire world of show business, where fantasy is often its own excuse for deception and deceit.
Only the foolish, it seems, would devote their lives to the pursuit of the dubious rewards of the near-impossible dream. And it seems so apt that both Stone and Gosling contributed their own real-life experiences and frustrations in the audition circuit to illustrate how their characters have to deal with the blows of the casually cruel and the mindlessly mundane powers-that-be.
What sweet vindication it is, then, that this “Cinderella” movie is reaping the rewards of its creators’ faith and perseverance, including bagging seven citations in the Golden Globes the day before we previewed “La La Land.” Does this presage even greater glory when the Oscars come around? In the tradition of happy-ending movies, let’s hope this good-hearted, happy but grounded movie prevails over its gloomier rivals. We could all use a little “la la land” in our lives these days.
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