Sunday, January 15, 2017

MOVIE, MUSIC, MAGIC: THE HEARTBREAKING "LA LA LAND"

Pardon me while I gush. Literally gush.

There is a kind of significant human experience one gets when he encounters any work that presses a certain button deep inside. The effects make words seem insufficient. You cannot pinpoint exactly why you get that high when you are made to feel something that is recognizable and yet unusually new.  

I get that queasy feeling when I hear certain songs that bring back chunk loads of memories from some particular moment in the distant past. (Try playing Dennis Lambert's song, Of all the Things and my entire college life in the '70s comes right back in a wallop.) I get that from reading a good novel --- and a terrific movie. Like La La Land.

OK. So it's my trip. I was properly warned by people that all those Golden Globes and citations from the various critics should prepare me for something good --- if not better than the usual fare.  I mean, when you hear and read about a movie said in the same breath as Oscar-worthy or the fave of the discriminating, you expect that this will be far better than Batman Versus Superman or, uh, Bad Neighbors 2.  

And there will always be those who do not like the movie --- because, well, they do not like the movie. Period.  Others will give you an entire thesis as to why they think this Ryan Gosling/Emma Stone movie is a lot of Hollywood crap tied in a ribbon and  --- (oh, God ... that Trump word) ---overrated.  Yes, that is within their human rights to say so ... in the same manner that perhaps they cry when they hear a different song  or they may actually have found a philosophical value to Batman Versus Superman. Whatever.

But I love La La Land. Period.  And I loved it because I love movies.  Yes, I love the classics inasmuch as I love them cheesy as well.  If I can appreciate Elvira Madigan or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, then I deserve the right to shamelessly enjoy all the Godzilla movies I can get to watch ... or cry shamelessly in every film version of Hachiko's story.

I love La La Land because it is a romance not only in a movie but about movies.

I cannot wait to discuss this with my students --- as to how a particular movie genre, assumed dead, has been resurrected and reinvented for the digital/ post-truth age.  Movie musicals come in numerous forms --- mostly screen versions from popular works from theater.  Although more popular in the past with the likes of My Fair Lady or West Side Story and, of course, The Sound of Music --- from stage to screen demands a certain magnitude, a level of grandeur as the material is transformed from one medium to another.

Thus, when Les Miserables brought Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway singing their hearts out, one of the longest running musicals was brought to a new form of life in a medium that defies the physical limitations of theater --- into that of cinematic grandeur.

The original movie musical seemed to have withered away somewhere through the decades. Instead, it was replaced by the jukebox musicals like Mama Mia (with the music of Abba), Rock of Ages, Moulin Rouge and Across the Universe (putting together the works of the Beatles).  Gone were those splendid years of the MGM Musicals where you had names like Astaire, Rogers, Kelly and Caron literally dancing on air in music composed and designed specifically for film.  Gone were those years because --- well, maybe --- just maybe --- the audience has lost so much of innocence and that the element of fantasy was replaced by the immeasurable tricks offered by computer technology.

Instead of the joyful innocence and sense of fun in Hollywood musicals, popular entertainment in movies has been replaced by thrill rides.  Technology has become such a wizard that imagination has ceased to have limits --- and what we pay with our good money is to be awed by sensory bombardment.

Then now we have La La Land, a simple love story about chasing dreams, fulfilling ambitions and the price paid in order to hold onto what one perceives as the ultimate happiness. Yes, there are impressive special effects. Yes, there is that sleight of hand of the director telling you, "Figure out how I did this?"  Yes, there is this refinement of the use of technology, never vulgar but instead opting to be charming. Yes, there is this visual delight, this enchantment in deciphering various motifs and tropes in classic musicals, including the use of images, transition devices and --- wonderful cliches.

The movie is actually a tribute to movies --- when they were still innocent and filled with romance.  But here's the catch:  it has redefined the musical, it has broken the expectations of the narrative arc --- it has even re-imagined the incorporation of musical numbers to seamlessly become organic to the movement of the plot.  

The use of the Griffith Observatory in putting reference to Rebel Without a Cause --- or that whole sub-narrative about the closing down of Realto Theater because no one wants to see old movies anymore --- these are all integral to the very heart and soul of Damien Chazelle's work.

But what makes this movie extraordinarily special is not only the performances of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone --- but its music.  Chazelle already showed his love for jazz in his previous Whiplash but here he uses the genre as another metaphor for the arts that need to survive amid the tsunami of changes happening in the world so quickly.  Moreover, the most brilliant music in this piece are not necessarily the grand production numbers --- but the small and intimate songs that capture that magical moment of the story in the film --- as well as the stories in the hearts of the audience.

It is really not all that surprising that, of all times, La La Land should be a film for the here and now. Reminiscent of the bittersweet romance of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (apparently one of the films that the 31 year old Chazelle found as inspiration), the return to innocence, the need to be reassured of far loftier emotions --- and even the anesthesia provided by romance --- gives respite to the audience who now lives in a world of utmost uncertainty.

When the world has refused to acknowledge the dichotomy of black and white but chosen to justify all shades of gray, the splendor of movies --- and the musicals bring us such welcome relief and temporary happiness in knowing that people in love can fly off and dance among the stars --- and that even traffic in the L.A. freeway can be cause for a grand opening production number. Movies respond to the temperament of the world --- and La La Land, in all its sweetness --- and eventually one the most pained endings ever --- is a fitting reply to what we have become today.

OK. I love La La Land and I tell it to all my friends and whoever wants to hear or listen. I cannot allow a beautiful experience such as the one I felt remain in me without sharing.  The movie has left me humming ... and remembering of all the people and possibilities I gave up to pursue what I thought was my dream.  A price has to be paid.  Even the pain of remembering this becomes worthy of a movie and a song.




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