La La Land (2016)

Effervescence over substance is where La La Land excels, yet struggles to stay there as the film moves along. Eventually, the entire production succumbs to the very same fate as Chazelle-proxy Ryan Gosling's character. Is it really all about carrying the torch for an art form that the world has turned its back on? Or is it about everyone else realizing that your self-indulgences should be viewed more like martyrdom? What's the difference? What begins as a champagne cocktail in a shaker that won't stop eventually takes a sip, gets lost on telling a tangential story, then downs it all in one gulp when the lights come on and the club is closing. The opening act is a cinematic revelation of sound and color, breezy camera work and just enough plot to tie it all together. As Stone exits that house party, all those around her moving in slow motion, only to have our whirling cinematic eye jump in the swimming pool, an entire theater's collective heart skips a beat. It's the kind of film that stirs applause from a film audience. What eventually follows the rousing opener is scene after scene of cinematic joy. It's Pierrot le Fou, Un Femme est un Femme, Young Girls of Rochefort and all the rest in equal measure. Thrilling to see Demy and Godard's flame kept alive in the opening act, the attentive detail, bursting at the seams with new ideas at every turn. This is a cinema that lives and breathes, it's alive in ways most films aren't. Then, suddenly, a forced conflict here and a self-deprecating wink or two by Chazelle stumbles its way to the closer in a Stone-solo number at her audition that's written so tone-deaf to the rest of the film that we wonder where it all came from. 

Much of La La Land comes out of left field. Part of its charm and its eventual pitfalls. At its core it has something to say about attitudes toward artistic movements in the 21st century. To digress, it remains to be seen whether the arts and design will have as much influence on the culture at large in the 21st century as they did in the 20th. The 20th century was inordinately affected by cinema, music, fashion and installation, personal expression and self-reflection became the mark of the over-class rather than a fringe of starving artists. Financial success as an artist became a one-way ticket out of a plebeian existence and into the capitalist incarnation of royalty. The best and brightest minds saw the power for cultural impact and social engineering offered by engaging in television, cinema and music; in a society where the pillars of religion were crumbling, song lyrics and film quotes became scripture. The millennial generation is coming of age and films aimed at them will be, and have been, the norm for some time to come.  It's a generation that has known nothing else, and dreams in naïveté of stardom like their ancestors dreamed of sainthood; it is simply the highest ideal they can conceive of to achieve. If Chazelle is layering all of this on top of La La Land, he plays the cards so close to the chest and pantomimes millennial gushing so readily that the two blend together. On the one hand, like Gosling, the film is strictly adherent to parroting techniques and tones used in films of the 50's and 60's with only the slightest attempt to update or change them in any way. This is, after all, not a film about Los Angeles, it's a film about La La Land and the film's blissful ignorance of reality lurking outside the millennial bubble is palpable. Until it isn't. Enter the film's second act when success starts up for Gosling and it strains his relationship with Stone. This is neither a stark contrasting reality being injected into a film that was all sugar, nor is it a fanciful and self-aware parody of spoiled millennials experiencing first world problems. Race comes into play as Gosling's white male longs to return to the days of the past, do things in the tradition of the 20th century and resist change. John Legend's black male longs to shed the past, move forward into the 21st century and leave tradition behind. Again, the film suggests such observations, without ever fully acknowledging them as such, then drops them entirely. We are left with Stone's final solo about Millennial dreams and angst. Up until this point in the picture I had assumed she'd be singing a song about what her relationship with Gosling has meant to the two of them, she who has a way with words and writing can express through lyric what Gosling can only express through piano, being unable to share his feelings any other way. Perhaps it would lead to their relationship bearing creative fruit as she writes lyrics for his music and they grow closer once again. Nope. Chazelle once again attempts some form of crushing 'realism' as their relationship dissolves and we're left with a what-could-have-been montage to close the film out. 

John Cleese once said the biggest problem with this generation is that they believe that if they don't become rich and famous that their life is meaningless. Like Steinbeck's observation of 'temporarily embarrassed millionaires', it's a generation of 'temporarily embarrassed celebrities', each day in their lives is fodder for a documentary retrospective. Somewhere in La La Land is this story itching to tell itself, it just never comes through. The technical achievements here cannot be overstated or downplayed, as the pure direction of the picture is a feat rarely matched. This puts Chazelle on par with Quentin Tarantino as a master of the craft without a terrible lot to say. Chazelle's films are about being an artist, the dedication it takes to be a great artist, thoughts on artistic tradition, Nouvelle Vague films, etc. The film's show piece sequences are a marvel to behold and are unequaled in skill. As a film, rarely do the strings tie together. La La Land is largely reflective of 21st century Hollywood, which is increasingly a confused blend of nostalgia and spectacle.