Sine/Salida|City of dimmed stars: Damien Chazelle’s La La Land

THIS year’s Oscar frontrunner, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, should be an instant hit for awards pundits and the whole of Hollywood. After all, this is their story, one too many, that draws both inspiration and heartbreak to anyone who has ever had the dream and experience of wanting to make it big in the city of angels, the city of stars. It will appeal to the showbiz industry and the people who make it shine and sizzle, seeing their lives, their dreams projected in glorious Cinemascope, told by wannabe actors, musicians, artists, in the sing-song grace of classic musicals.

La La Land screen shot

The story features – actually it only focuses on two characters – aspiring actress Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) who while waiting for that big audition break, is working as a barista in a storied coffee shop in one of big studios (the shop is just in front of the window where a scene in Casablanca, one of the filmic references of the film, was shot), and struggling musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who wants to open up a jazz bar with an aspiration to revive “pure jazz” but still making ends meet by playing ragtag Christmas tunes in samba-tapas bars. It is in this place that the two meet for the second time, Mia’s adulation of Sebastian’s freestyle piano solo cut short by the latter’s misfortune. After diverting from the playlist yet again, his boss fires him and passes by curtly to a forlorn Mia, who just came off from an unlucky audition. Yet this second meeting is crucial for this sets the wheels of the love story at the film’s heart in motion, and a crucial point by which Chazelle propels (and later returns to) the fantasy that permeates the entire film.

The film is tagged as a modern musical, and maybe rightly so. It aspires to the formalist, classical musical but it is a curious thing that while the musical numbers deliver what they are supposed to do, which is to bring the story forward and convey the film’s themes while being standout, joyous encapsulation of the film in themselves, it never quite reaches that grandiose exhilaration and liberation. There is a kind of muted energy, an inertia that never quite reaches that crescendo such that of “A Lovely Night” scene where Mia and Seb cap off the night amidst a sunset tap-dancing, the camera swooshing towards and away from them. The songs, most notably the film’s two standout ones – City of Stars and Audition (The Fools Who Dream) – are not lively, danceable numbers but a nostalgic, romantic or romantically nostalgic. “What is wrong with being romantic?” Seb asks.

And perhaps, this is what Chazelle wants to ask us as well. Mia’s character, despite being thinly written, seems to give off a spark when she talks about her aunt, who she said introduced her to such classic films as Notorious, Bringing Up Baby and Casablanca, two of which stars Ingrid Bergman, who figures prominently in Mia’s bedroom wall. In a later scene – a date which happened after a crucial epiphany on Mia’s part – we see the two watching Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (James Dean’s breakout film) in an old theatre, the scene projected on the screen was the tragic denouement in the Griffiths Observatory in Ray’s film. The two then proceeded to the same observatory, where Chazelle transform’s their silent dance sequence into an act of fantasy.

This fantasy, a diversion that the film suggests even from its opening number, a highway traffic erupting into a crazed musical number, is what we all have in the end. And it’s what the couple and the audience return to in that bittersweet wish fulfillment of an epilogue that owes much to Casablanca as it does to Jacques Demy’s French classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. There is much to be desired in the screenplay, which is lacking a kind of contemporary context, one that should give weight and distinction beyond the homages. In the end, nostalgia in the film functions first as an act of remembrance, an exhumation of the past, brought about by the misfortune and discontent of the present. It is an aspiration to the ideal of the past but it doesn’t give us enough insight when this memory loses its touch to the immediacy of the insistence of the present and immediacy of the future.

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