La La Land
The movie that's going to win Best Picture 2017
La La Land
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
127 minutes, rated M
It’s too early to tell if Damien Chazelle has singlehandedly revived the movie musical for a modern audience. That will depend on whether anyone follows his lead. That will be hard, given how much skill, empathy and genuine movie-love he brings to the film that will probably win best picture at the Oscars.
What is true now is that Chazelle has brought back a genuine sense of joy, a love of the language of music and dance and a belief in the role of art – and that should make him a hero to anyone who has been wondering where all the great movies went in the 21st century.
I don’t mean just nostalgia. There is some of that too, but La La Land looks forward as much as it looks back. On one side, it’s about the future of jazz as well as its past. That becomes part of its subject, as in Whiplash, Chazelle’s last (fabulous) film about what it takes to becomes a great drummer. Sebastian Reed, the temperamental but soulful pianist played beautifully by Ryan Gosling, idolises Monk and Bud Powell and Bill Evans, to the point of starvation. JK Simmons (from Whiplash) fires him on Christmas Eve for never sticking to the boring stuff he wants as live muzak in his toney LA restaurant. Sebastian lacks compromise and empathy for anything but the music of 60 years ago.
One of the benefits of Sebastian’s budding romance with Mia Dolan (Emma Stone, luminous and as good as ever) is that she suggests working in a funk band with rising star Keith (John Legend) might not be so bad, if he wants to eat. Mia is used to graft, disappointment and compromise. She wants to be an actress, so she is willing to sling coffee at the place on the Warner Bros lot, where she can dream about Bette and Lauren and her all-time favourite, Ingrid (who needs surnames?). Mia gives Sebastian the tools to overcome his artistic snobbery; he teacher her to dream big and go for the top.
For both characters, the idea of an artistic life is legitimate and that’s more than refreshing. In the Hollywood of Marvel superheroes and the country that just elected Trump, it’s revolutionary. That’s why having Mia and Sebastian break into song and dance fits so well. Chazelle’s dreams are even bigger than his characters. He wants to bring passion back to movies, not to mention colour, movement and rhythm. Has anyone checked his grandparentage? I am sure Vincente Minnelli is there somewhere, and possibly Pandro S Berman (look him up!).
The dance numbers are better than I had imagined they could be in a modern film. Chazelle seems to have absorbed all of the history, all of the rules. We see feet! He shoots most of the dancing full body – Fred Astaire can be heard applauding from the grave – but with songs and arrangements that build organically, to advance plot and character. A number might go from single piano – played convincingly by Gosling – to a 90-piece orchestra, as the lead characters dance in the air above Griffith Park. Now that’s entertainment!
This fantasy element goes straight back to Minnelli’s work with Gene Kelly and can hold its own. It’s symbolic of the risks Chazelle is prepared to take. God knows how he found producers willing to go with him: ‘You want to do what? Close a freeway to do a dance number where 50 people dance on top of their cars?’
I don’t know if the music will still be sung in 20 or 30 years. I do know that dance schools all around the world are going to see a rush of enrolments. Couturiers will look at the film’s use of vibrant colour and decide, I vont zat look! And jazz players will smile as they watch the scene where Sebastian teaches Mia how to love jazz: I knew they’d come back to us, he or she will say. And they might be right. Bud and Bill and Thelonius will join Fred and Gene and Vincente and all the other greats in applause. It’s going to get noisy in Hollywood’s graveyards.