La La Land and Film Criticism’s Malleable Perspective on Homage and Originality

la-la-land

Since its premiere at Venice, Chazelle’s third feature, La La Land—a euphemism for a fantasy world, also seen as LA—has met critical acclaim, mainstream approval, Oscar buzz, a critical backlack, a re-examination, and Oscar pundit denial and defense. It now stands on tenuous footing within the cinephile realm. This resembles closely my own grappling with the film. A minor shift in one’s perspective seemingly alters the quality of this film. This is not how film ought to be acknowledged, however, and I’m going to use this piece to tackle the many points of conversation within La La Land, from homage and originality to cinematography and music to realism and escapism.

Inarguably, La La Land is well crafted, approachable, and more interesting than 90% of mainstream films today. It is at once a throwback to the Golden Age of Cinema as well as an original illustration of contemporary culture. It is at once a display of bravura cinematography and jazz scoring as well as showboating pat-on-the-back display of pop culture. It is at once a flight of fantasy as well as a determinedly down-to-earth evocation of reality. It straddles these antipodal modes of cinema carefully, implying that originality and homage, high and low art, exuberance and melancholy, and realism and escapism can sit cordially beside one another. Effectively, La la land is the product of a keen original mind who has sentimental yearnings for the past. His excitement to renew yet revolutionize the films that shaped his upbringing is La La Land’s greatest claim to fame yet also an easy target for its dismissal. Chazelle’s worldview seems to conflict in a similar manner to Keith (John Legend) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who debate about the purity of a dying art and the necessary means to revive it through re-actualization.

La La Land is the re-actualization of Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg, amongst others, in an effort to revive its infectious spirit. Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz would apparently discuss Umbrellas in college, their mutual favourite film—and a personal favourite of my own—and it serves as their primary inspiration in making La La Land. They ostensibly made La La Land to enliven audiences spirits the way Umbrellas and those other classics enlivened themselves, but they also made La La Land as a personal venture, with an effort to transform and revolutionize the Golden age itself. The issue here is that the filmmakers use concepts and ideas from one worldview as a means of informing a worldview quite disparate from it. This may be interpreted similar to the supposed bastardization of Jazz  which is thematically woven into the film. Jazz has developed from an artistic form of communication to free form be bop to innocuous elevator music and worse. Sebastion is one of few who recognizes this, and so he loves and laments traditional Jazz. Oppositely, Keith sees a future for Jazz music. This conflict is analogous to the one inherent in La La Land; the film displays an obvious admiration of tradition with a purist sensibility while simultaneously choosing to look into the future and be read as a work of originality.

This steers one’s critical perspective in opposing directions. Do we see the coupling of homage and originality as a form of love+revolution or of exploitation+bastardization? With La La Land’s complexity, it is—quite incredulously—all of the above.

La La Land hits many right notes, but its greatest flaw is inconsistency. If La La Land is supposed to be a throwback to Jacques Demy (Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort) and Gene Kelly (Singing in the Rain, An American In Paris), the one major thing it is missing is the whimsy. Jacques Demy in particular created through cinema a world all his own. Throughout his filmography, there are even recurring characters, such as Lola and Raoul Cottard from his debut film Lola, who return in subsequent films. It is a measure of maintaining continuity and suspended disbelief within a complex world of fantasy. This world of Demy, as its called, is finely documented by wife and fellow New Wave Filmmaker Agnes Varda in the feature Jacquot de Nantes and the documentary The World of Jacques Demy. She illustrates the world as one of childlike wonder and sensitivity replete with fantasy, melancholy, and whimsy. In Demy’s films, the vibrant colours, sensational musical numbers, and spectacular dance choreography are a testament to his boyish charisma, and it is through his charisma and childlike wonder that his fantastic world becomes so inviting. This lovable charm belongs to the ‘World of Demy’ which Chazelle unevenly attempts to bring back to life.

In spite of this, when La La Land is on point, it hits all the right notes. Quite frankly, it is a film which Demy himself would have loved, even if it doesn’t have the boyish charm that makes his own films stand out. The opening number, which is a clear reference to the opening number of Demy’s Young Girls of Rochefort is full of life, whimsy, and charisma. Its vivid colours and spectacular choreography—both of dancers and camera—echoes the worlds of Jacques Demy and Gene Kelly. When the intertitle “Winter” arrives, however, we recognize that we are not in the world of Demy or Kelly, but in a distinct place where the melancholy is more intense, the concepts are more complex, and the fantasy has a bitter feeling of impossibility. Yet it is a world that wishes to continue revering the world of wonder, fantasy and whimsy that it at once subverts. This may come off as hypocritical or even indulgent, but only if seen from that particular perspective. From another, it comes off as ambitious and passionate.

La La Land’s plot is virtually lifted from Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Though the meet-cute is much more protracted in La La Land, both films follow the romance of a couple stripped apart when duty calls. In one it is for service in the war, for the other service in a band. Chazelle’s film uses a modern obstacle to drive the couple apart, their careers, but the result is the same. They separate, long for one another, and meet briefly several years later to wonder ‘what if?’. The use of intertitles demarcating time and even the font is lifted from Umbrellas, and the store “Parapluies” on the Studio lot signals its inspiration. The subtlest, most effective touch of homage comes when Mia (Emma Stone) is writing her play; the woman in her one woman show is named Genevieve, the name of Catherine Deneuve’s character in Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Also subtle are certain melodies riffed from Michel Legrand’s work with Demy which include even a part from Demy’s underrated fairy-tale Donkey Skin. 

These elements of homage surely satisfy the cinephile. All the references to Casablanca, Sunset Boulevard, Rebel Without a Cause, Bringing Up Baby, Notorious, Singing in the Rain, An American In Paris, The Red Balloon, and many others work in a way that The Force Awakens, for example, simply did not. La La Land displays adoration of these films without relying on our recognition of them. Yes, Ryan Gosling swings around a lamppost like Fred Astaire, but this is rather subtle, isn’t it? And how many people caught the boy with the red balloon? Who of you have even seen one of Demy’s musicals?

But La La Land is nowhere near as vibrant as those technicolor gems of the 50s and 60s; in fact, it is moody as hell with vignetting often utilized to draw focus inward on a particular character during emotive moments. There’s a certain darkness to La La Land, both physically and psychologically, that does not exist in those films of fantasy. There is also a certain brightness to La La Land which does. It continually sits between the two.

Authenticity and high or low art aside, there are the more easily observable elements of plot, acting, and music to be considered. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are phenomenal actors, but were they right for their roles? Most people would agree, it seems, that they are not the greatest singers or dancers. But if you look at the musical scenes themselves, what is there to be disappointed by? Whatever people say about Stone’s quirks or Gosling’s demeanor, take one look at the Mia’s audition scene or Gosling convincing her that she’s ‘good enough’, and tell me they were miscast.

That said, the two major techniques of Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg which Chazelle chose not to poach are perhaps the two techniques La La Land most needs: firstly, the actors in Umbrellas lip synched, professionals were dubbed in, and professional dancers were hired as actors. Secondly, the entire film is sung. On the first technique, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are good singers, but not great ones. They both had their shot at singing careers, one from Reality TV and the other from the Mickey Mouse Club, and neither of them succeeded. Why they sing their own parts is certainly up for question. On the second point, the entirely sung dialogue of Umbrellas is exactly what makes it unique. When asked about it, Demy said that the purpose was to create a cohesion from beginning to end. He didn’t like how musicals would have a start and stop to the music scenes and would alternate between the two. He wanted to create a film without interruption. His execution of this essentially brings about an aural version of the long take… no blinks, no interruptions, just a consistent flow of sound. Since La La Land’s seemingly greatest flaw is its consistency, perhaps it is because the film feels like it is made up of interrupted pieces, sections which add up to a whole but do not form a cohesive work of art.

This is all besides the final scene of the film, though, a scene which works on every level that Chazelle wishes to implement. It is glorious, masterfully crafted, cohesive, whimsical, nostalgic and original, escapist and realist all at the same time. It is 15 minutes of brilliant cinema, while the rest remains in limbo between a classic and something that falls just short of.

89/100 – Excellent.

4 Stars

 

 

 

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About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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One Response to La La Land and Film Criticism’s Malleable Perspective on Homage and Originality

  1. Pingback: Best of 2016 | Aesthetics Of The Mind

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