Creativity Culture

Halfway Land

*** Spoilers alert: If you like La La Land (LLL) and are not open to a different perspective, please do not read this. If you have watched LLL and feel something is missing, read on. If you have not watched LLL, please do not read, as there may be spoilers in this article. ***

LLL is a very polarising film in terms of viewer reactions. Head over to IMDb and you’ll see a lot of 10’s and 1’s.

The film has interesting visuals and a laid back ambience. It speaks a language that I am familiar with: random, fuzzy, soft. But I do not rate this film from the artistic standpoint.

The film is cute for sure. And the lead actor and actress are pretty.

But it’s got a “I need to win Oscars” stamp all over it. And that made me cringe, like some of those critically acclaimed films of yester-years. The Revenant, Birdman, anyone?

I wanted to like it, because of the Chazelle factor, and at times I did get into the film, like when the yellow lighted corridor cut into a dark green wall as Mia entered the room and walked towards blue curtains, and Sebastian started singing:

City of stars
Are you shining just for me?

At that moment I expected a punchline in the lyrics or in the music, something that would carry the wisdom of the human condition. 

But then you got the same whiny voice over the same soft piano dribble:

City of stars
There’s so much that I can’t see

That yellow-dissolving-into-green-into-blue scene stirred up emotions and set up the moment so well, but the punchline never arrived, then or later. The visual editing delivered, but not the story or the soundtrack.

It just felt too much like K-Pop.

Those missed opportunities appear a number of times in LLL. There are moments that set up punchlines, but there are no punchlines. Instead, you end up with something that looks quite pretty, but fuzzy and empty, close to a mannequin. Everything is kinda halfway.

Let’s compare this to Whiplash, also directed by Chazelle. Whiplash had one tenth of LLL’s production budget. Viewers could tell that Chazelle loves jazz and he approached directing Whiplash, first of all, with a pure love for jazz. A guy wanted to express his love for jazz through a cinematic story. Can’t get any purer than that, right? He most probably didn’t aim for the Oscars or any major awards, as relatively he was still a new kid on the block. It ended up winning three Oscars.

LLL is a different beast. It talks about jazz a lot, straddling two worlds – Hollywood and jazz, but it is not very jazzy, as the common signifiers of jazz such as improvisation, dialogue, or just-shut-up-and-play are largely missing. You’d hear the random mentions of Thelonious Monk and Count Basie, but most tracks and performances are nothing like jazz at all. Even the wonderful Oscar-winning J. K. Simmons of Whiplash fame is cast in only a blander-than-bland ten-second role. It looks like his part is forced into the script just so that he has a role to play. To the writer’s credit, Mia does raise a valid question about jazz, especially smooth jazz with Kenny G. But you do not need to appreciate jazz that much to know that Kenny G and jazz do not belong in a same sentence.

A film that is truly about jazz does not talk about about “saving jazz”. It is the voice of the ego, not love. But if LLL had started with ego, and then followed through with a story of discovery and redemption and ended with a return to purity, then we would have ended up with something more watchable. 

Did I mention halfway before?

The jazz is halfway, even the attempt for fusion jazz. Yeah, fusion – the ticket for anything. The “City of stars” track is kinda cute, but it is no “Singin’ in the rain”. Jazz is heard in bars, but the dominant tracks only have faint connections to jazz through swing beats or smoky lounges. Interestingly, skip to 8:27 in this Charlie Parker tribute and get an idea of how “City of stars” could have been, in a jazzier arrangement (only for a few seconds before an interview kicked in).

The dancing is halfway. It’s got amateur written all over it, not in a Chaplin sense, but in a I-can’t-really-dance kinda sense.

The singing is halfway. Ditto.

The triggers for musical sequences are halfway. Theme development triggers and climactic moments are largely missing, so some dance sequences, instead of being delightfully spontaneous, come across as just being random. If you like Bollywood-style randomness, then dance sequences in LLL could be your cup of tea.

The story is halfway. There is the simplest story following that tired Hollywood trope: struggling girl and struggling boy meet, fall in love, then have to make a choice and part ways, with an alt arc painting a happily-ever-after ending. It’s barely a story, but obviously some people think it is. There is almost no tension as the “story” develops. A single tense dialogue – an argument – is awkward and does not really reveal character.  I probably could cut a few scenes without affecting this film’s story, mood and feel.

Despite being a halfway picture, LLL probably will win the Oscar for Best Picture this year, as Hollywood adores a story about itself, especially a crowd pleaser, and it ticks many checkboxes in the how-to-make-an-Oscars-winning-movie formula

But then, I would ask: is a nice random walk in the park on a beautiful day considered cinematic? Maybe it is. Maybe this is meant to be a random half way kinda film, one that is more about ambience than story.

I see LLL as a lost opportunity. I believe that Chazelle is capable of telling another powerful story. But do start with your love of jazz, Chazelle, and watch out for those shiny things! They are known to mess with people’s minds, and take them further from the heart.

📸 Still frame from La La Land