© 2017 by James Clark
La La Land (2016) approaches us as a peculiarly naive boy-meets-girl story, with an archaic musical façade. It lulls the viewer into an effervescent Debbie Reynolds’ diversion about show-biz ambition, somehow goofy and uplifting at the same time. It insinuates that the bad old 21st century is, when all is said and done, as cute and sentimental as before. But, on further inspection, its “before” turns out to be the world of Jacques Demy (1931-1990), who was neither cute nor sentimental. (I must interject, at this point, that this glowing refinement of the Demy aesthetic is, to me, an almost incredible gift! The exposition to follow, however, becomes attentive to that rally’s making any headway.)
The first encounter—bristling with Singin’ in the Rain’s cliché of hate-at-first-sight—takes the form of her (Mia) giving him (Sebastian) the finger during a stressful LA traffic jam. Before we see them, however, we see that same freeway when clogged with convertibles and alight with song-and-dance hopefuls bounding skyward and frolicking lyrically upon what has become a virtual (cement) stage from which to display their resilience and wit. The troupe are Southern-California casually clad as they sing and dance in unison as if they were close acquaintances. Or, as if they were a company of carnies, headed for their next gig (Rochefort, France) by way of the suspension ferry-bridge which, in 1967, still served that town as occupied by members of the cast of Demy’s film, The Young Girls of Rochefort.
The song in the bottleneck, “Another Day of Sun,” conveys that paramount to their experience is the tough slog to become movie stars. (“Could be brave or just insane… reaching for the heights.”) The salsa current stresses the staccato cadence of a life of self-assertion, self-promotion and withstanding refusals and harsh discouragement while leaving room for Michel Legrand-resembling musical topspin. The phrase, “another day of sun,” pertains to gratifying opportunities in the offing every day. What it strikingly lacks—despite brio—is full-scale joyousness and lightness; and that soaring is what the Legrand pop/jazz instrumentational-only motif induces from the dance-carnies. No one declares anything on that Pont (bridge) Transbordeur. It all comes down to bodies in buoyant dance motion, joining with the natural and constructed surround as a delicious mystery, in contrast to a battlement to be scaled. The travelling music and motorcycle marketing soon experiences a defection of two of the ladies (opting for romance with two guys from Rochefort); but they had had that afternoon on the bridge. Their local replacements, twin sisters (one a musician, one a dancer), however, prove to be far more driven to public grandeur; and it is with them that the protagonists having a bad day in another day of sun coincide and with them who get under the skin of our up-to-the-minute persons of interest.
Mia soon resurfaces as counter-help at a café on the Warner Brother’s lot, adjacent to a low-rise vintage European building similar to where the twins lived on a square, facing their mother’s café and vowing, with their rip-tide of ambition, not to be trapped in Rochefort. The first glimpse of that meaningful prospect shows a couple of extras strolling by, their Marie Antoinette outlandish beehive wigs and elaborate gowns resembling the huge sun-hats and bright costuming of the twins. That day she undergoes the first of a series of collisions we see, in having coffee spilled over her blouse when she rushes off to a casting call and fails to circumvent a customer.(Collisions tracing all the way back to the Gene Kelly-era noir Kiss Me Deadly , being a highlight of that Demy invention so lyrically launched.) A second crash occurs in Mia’s approaching Sebastian to extend congratulations after hearing his heartfelt jazz ballad (in the register of Young-Girl Solange’s piano sonata), as soaring into a blaze of half-notes, a moment of effort which has led to his being fired from the restaurant gig whose manager wants no part of jazz. Sebastian (that name being perhaps an indicator of something in the past) rudely bumps her aside from out of his anger in being penalized for the musical style he loves; and from out of her having made that only-too-familiar rude gesture on the freeway. Soon after, she is at a pool party looking, as usual (in pregnant contrast to the precedent shadowing her and Sebastian), for someone who can help her get ahead; and there in the band is the self-styled VIP covering Top 40 hits. She requests a particularly flimsy tune, to be carried by the pianist—pointedly reminiscent of Gene Kelly’s ridiculing Debbie Reynolds’ pretense of High Theatre eclipsing mere movies, on finding her doing a very weak chorus girl take, popping out of a cake. Why, we should be asking ourselves, is that latter feel-good vehicle snuggling up to our protagonists who have to deal with a new outbreak of Demy Surrealism, not the happy-endings mavens of LA’s La La Land?
This flurry of precedents has, thereby, constructed a reservoir of (shaky) disinterestedness by means of which to probe the intensity of self-serving within the arts of music and movies today. For all its retro concomitants and La La Land procedures, La La Land takes shape as a study of crisis, not whimsy. Just as Gene and Debbie bury the hatchet to share the ups and downs of the entertainment industry, Sebastian and Mia pool their resilience and affection for the sake of their safari in hostile territories. Crowning their ongoing protestations (she to her roommates and he to his sister) about the importance of their crafts, there is another of those parties where discovery is on everyone’s mind, where Sebastian provides some Gallic chords no one notices and where he notices her and, during his break, finds her; and, both evincing their thick skins, they readily address each other in the spirit of discovery. This more modulated bumping into each other (where neon designs chord from afar with Demy’s color coating) evolves with her crowding him a bit in asking him to fetch her car keys, as if he were doubling as a valet service They cut out in the general direction of their cars, along a verdant roadway affording a nocturnal view of the misnamed City of Angels, and they both, toughness being something they can feel good about, dismiss it as ho-hum. But the twinkling night and its spaciousness and the attractiveness of their not-yet compromised presence induce the doyen of the fedora-era to invite her (being attached to a far less specific magic) to join him in doing justice to a current of grace transcending predators like his sister telling him, “I don’t care if Miles Davis pissed on it” [Hoagy Carmichael’s piano stool which Sebastian had searched out and cherished as a shrine] and the casting executioners shutting her up after mere seconds. Being entertainment experts, they know (perhaps without the benefit of ballroom classes, but perhaps having that card up their sleeve) about graceful partnering and when to make a little peacock gesture true to the delight of the excitement of motion. This moment of electricity(including tap dancing emphases) reactivates the long-lost dashes and silkiness of Delphine and Solange (while substituting for the defectors), the twins, staging, that sunny Sunday afternoon, a once-in-a-lifetime breakaway from the smallness of Rochefort and beyond, where life became enhanced to a degree they would never know again. Mia’s phone breaks the spell that was, after all, not of that other magnitude. At her car, she says, “Good night.” Sebastian replies, “Good-bye…” But next morning he’s at the café and they take a long coffee break, where she details how she got into what he snapped to his sister, namely, managing rope-a-dope in waiting for an undeserving world to tire, after which to rise like a phoenix. In response to the contrast between her game-changing (college-scrapping) aunt’s discernment and the treadmill of unskilled management in the film world, he commiserates, “They worship everything and value nothing…” She levels with him that she neither worships nor values jazz; and his response is something to remember. He feels, heaven knows why, that she’d change her mind if she knew about the New Orleans flop houses where it apparently began. But then, accompanying her to a vintage jazz bar, “The Lighthouse,” he gives her a primer on the go, enthusing about timbres, rhythms and the fact that every performance is uniquely different. Being a good listener, anyway, she gets a call to audition for a TV series based on Rebel without a Cause and admits she’s never seen such prehistoric fare. He knows of an art-house showing it; and they set a date to do the “research” for the presumed long-haul. Her casting experience could be measured in microseconds, she has a conflicting date (the odiousness of the company impelling her to bolt for James Dean, notwithstanding) and, though way-late and Sebastian bemused but hardly shocked by the no-show, she is, before finding him, superimposed on that screen—as if a creature from another world having the makings of a scandal within old-timey melodrama. She then has his hand on her knee.(Thereby, in the early bloom of affection between them, they undergo the shadow of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord , where Gradisca, the hot and heavy seer gets groped in a movie theatre by Titta the small-town boy with big [far too big for him] longings. She opts for a fat, bald and solvent local; he just slips off the map.)The film they sort of watch, somewhat mocking his faith in jazz as a radical vision and her faith in film as confirming her aunt’s ecstasy, never elicits a word. But its scene at the Griffith Observatory, where topspin meets tailspin, where the big picture meets a less than big picture, gives Mia the idea of rounding out another dead end by taking the law into their own hands. Thus we find them, after the closing of the astronomical edifice, invoking outer space which we all can access, while situating themselves—since magic is indeed in the air—in the fabulous eye-opener. Activating the imagery of the cosmos, they fully recover their disinterested objectives, expressing the windfall in waltz expansiveness culminating in their doing a rapturous space dance amidst stars and galaxies. Nicholas Ray and Stanley Kubrick still having something to say to our researching protagonists.
Sebastian had told her that that jazz meaning so much to his well-being was dying; but that he’d open a club to keep the soaring alight until the last artist leaves the stage. Mia, now sure that the movies might as well be dead to her, gets down to writing, acting and producing a one-woman play, which she titles, “So Long Boulder City,” referring, no doubt, to the home town she and her aunt could not love. (The set featuring a view of the Eiffel Tower.) It flops, and she begins to conclude that Boulder City might suit her.“They didn’t like it,” she reports (he being detained by a photo shoot headed for Social Media and missing the show). “Fuck them,” he assures. The narrative, doing shooting stars from out of the Griffith, features not only Mia’s attempt to shape her own destiny, but Sebastian’s taking a flyer on the invitation of a less than fond friend, Keith, to take over the keyboard for a market savvy band coming our way with exactly the bilious pain wafting through several appalling Motown moments in the movies of Jim Jarmusch. Here the guaranteed $1000. a week and a percentage of the gate turns him, however long-term, into a pop-realist flying the flag, somehow suitable, of “The Messengers.” After beholding his latest scheme—a show clogging the stage with dancing girls who can’t dance and give sexy a bad name; replete with an audience approval by means of action-adventure shrieks, hilariously incongruous—Mia, stating the obvious but looking for some overriding sense, tells him, “You have a dream. This is not your dream.” (There would have to be on the playlist something they call, “Start a Fire!”)Rather than sensibly letting her in on his notion of making a killing (the group actually, but not that surprisingly, going viral) for the sake of, in an indeterminate future, becoming the owner of a loss-leader jazz club, he chokes on the conclusion of affirming the likes of his sister and his parents being generally correct in defining him as hooked on a pointless art-form. He subsequently digs in his heels, claiming that the modest concoctions are not that bad (perhaps affording him a clever moment of integrity to be miraculously appreciated by infantile lifers), and besides part of their maturation pact. During a meal he prepares during a quickie stopover, he loses it in accusing her of preferring to see him close to destitutebecause that would make her feel better about her own failures. She cuts out during an activation of a smoke alarm.
This sets the table for a very subtle outcome of that perhaps irresistibly sunny-but-bittersweet-seeming feel-good rejoinder to those troubling films best to avoid, and like jazz and Mia’s script. Though virtually no one showed up for “So Long Boulder City,” one person who did, a casting director, loved it; and she puts out a call to her roommates (at the only address known for her) whom she had recently left with no live links (having burned her bridges). One of them has Sebastian’s number, and he knows of her parents’ address (across from the library where Mia’s aunt introduced her to vintage movies eventually upstaging Law). He races to Boulder City; and though she now feels that Mom and Dad make more sense than Hollywood, his touting the influential new fan and appealing to her pride in being tough, brings her back alive. The casting team reminds us of in-from-the-boonies Betty’s being accorded a royal reception in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (the domestic melodrama, however, being declared a dead end by a younger team sitting in).In significant contrast to that latter derailment, Mia (her one-woman smarts clicking in) delivers a paean to her inspiration/ relative who haunted Paris, looking to capture a lyrical quality she did not feel in America.
Proving that there is a lot of life left in the Mom and Dad market, Mia goes on to show us she must have wowed these softies in more than one type-cast wholesome inspiration. We see her married to a non-descript presentable Dad and we see them visiting LA (for another of those heartwarming sagas) from their Paris heights, having brought the nanny affixed to their young daughter to smooth things, like their night on the town. (Our first glimpse of the reigning Queen of Boulder City is one shapely leg and a Hermes shoe stepping out of a limo at Warner Brothers and being accorded homage at the café where she once was a nobody. She graciously reciprocates the lattes and biscotti on the house with a large bill in the tip bowl.) As they drive to their restaurant, she, looking askance at the traffic jam they’re in, declares, “I don’t miss this.” They bail out at the nearest ramp and then we see them strolling along a darkened sidewalk after their shot in the dark dinner. Perhaps looking for something a bit better than the less than Paris neighborhood bistro fare they had just been through, they are both in the mood to roll the dice for what a jazz club along the way might offer. It offers Sebastian’s dream of running a venue—financed by years of lucrative crap—for those jazz exponents not quite extinct. Mia’s fame produces an excellent table. And when the old flame takes the stage to add a bit of pizzazz to round out the middle set, he hits his own traffic jam in the V.I.P. emanation. (We saw him coming to work that night, walking from his car to the haven, walking right past a big poster of her latest release as if it showed a stranger.) Pulling himself together, he goes to the piano and performs a quiet rendition of that theme-song (ballad/ sonata) of theirs, first introduced at the restaurant where an enemy was calling the mass-market shots and he (atomically) mowed down the only other contrarian for miles around. Mia, with the most inflected contrarian disposition in that audience, is silently shattered in beholding the most inflected contrarian disposition on that stage. She tells her long-term date that she doesn’t want to stay for the last set. The modified radicals sombrely share an emotional glance (brilliantly unlike Genevieve being virtually run off the snowy premises at Cherbourg when former lovers met by chance and winter reigned, in Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).
The impressive way they overcame their antipathy in the early going was a tribute to their toughness. Accordingly, the way Mia rose to the occasion at her audition by singing a little aria about her aunt who moved her to another form of law, a song about all those risking so much for the sake of a necessary and daunting revelation, was not only sublime, infused with her occupying a baby spotlight while everything else became black. It was—like Delphine and Solange on that long-ago stage on the square in Rochefort—the highlight of her passionate life: the moment when the weight and the wildness of the cosmos became ravishing. “Here’s to the ones who dream/ Foolish as they may seem/ Here’s to the hearts that ache/ Here’s to the mess we make/ She captured a feeling/ Sky with no ceiling/ Sunset inside a frame/ She lived in her liquor and died in a flicker/ I’ll always remember the flame/ She told me: / A bit of madness is key to give us the color to see/ Who knows where it will lead us?/ And that’s why they need us,/ So bring on the rebels/ The ripples from pebbles/ The painters and poets and plays…Crazy as they may seem…” But her fantasizing, at Sebastian’s club, represents her instinct (not in sync with her stirring rebel cheer) to look to saccharine default scenarios, just as Keith’s profit centre does. During Sebastian’s ballad to her and to them both, her attention drifts to, first of all, instead of a dismissal and a smack from him on leaving the lair of the dull, an embrace and kiss (redolent of their anxiety-muted love-making throughout), and beaming approval from the boss who had hated jazz. Then she imagines both she and he becoming feted by the casting office as leading to a glamorous life in Paris (and his Parisian jazz establishment), not without a cute baby boy, a working trip back to LA and the night out with the nanny covering the blue-chip fort. Then on to the club where reality packs a punch in the presence of a boring spouse.
Their brief and tempered smiles in face of “the mess we make” when being suffocated by an adulterated mainstream take the high road of solitary gifts and catch-as-catch-can alliances. This film, driven by a young screenplay/ directorial lion and a young musical composer (Justin Hurwitz) have magically brought back to life the long-forgotten partnership of Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand. Let’s close by noticing a few more gems of coincidence instilling the world of 2017 with the wit of 1967 (and perhaps venturing, when all is said and done, an important extra step). Having fielded the casting director’s call on the latter’s being at a loss to find Mia, after her clean break with Hollywood, Sebastian comes to be confronted with her mumbling a litany of excuses for never returning. He blurts out, “You’re a baby!” This links to no one so much as Umbrellas’ Genevieve, falling to pieces when her fiancé gets drafted for the war in Algeria. When Mia mockingly requests the song, “I Ran,” she puts down some firepower of her own, pertaining to his unseemly freak-out when getting fired from the Christmas show at that restaurant tricked out like Santa’s Workshop. Her zeroing in on that title indicates she has a lively, impromptu sense of irony to be converted to Tinseltown quasi-humbug. Though he projects as a young man who knows what is required, Sebastian, as mentioned, unnecessarily complicates their relationship, by, when joining Keith’s money-machine, not being able to acknowledge that his life as a jazz artist has been seen by him to be lacking a prospect of critical impact, and that his entrepreneurial re-fit would be as much a funeral parlor as a jazz club. Going beyond such pessimism, a live issue notwithstanding, could have lifted Mia and forged an unbreakable link. Thus, both of them have pretty much lost faith in celebrating a vastly new world (recall Sebastian telling her that jazz is supernal “and it’s dying; but not on my watch!”—a step Demy, for all his irony and all his dysfunctional apparitions, never settled into. La La Land puts to us the rigorous problematic of a rally against universal dead weight. Sebastian’s earlier incarnation, telling his snide, exasperated sister—who had needled him with, “You think Mom and Dad would call this a home?”— “I’ll rise like the Phoenix!” could still make some sense. Is the Surrealistic supplement of Demy’s energies a useful wide-view in a time of technicity seemingly mopping up, not the rampant irrationalism easily folded into its own dogmas, but figures like Mia’s alcoholic aunt (and so much more), recalled as declaring, “She’d do it again…” Maybe this “lightweight” film moots, that there are only a handful who can stand the way it is; and they have to build a home and find someone to share it, while staying abreast the world at large.
Here’s Demy’s prototype of adventure on the road!