"Whats going on with mycareer" - Cher
I recently watched La La Land for the first time since I caught it in theaters back in 2016. Back then, I was a little grumpy about it. During its publicity cycle, much was made of the movie being a movie musical just like old times when life was simpler and you could drink a malted milkshake at the soda fountain. The nostalgia got laid on thick...thicker than a malted milkshake. Me? I am a Rent girl. I'm a Cats girl. I do not always need old-school "movie magic." Not everything needs to be Fred-and-Ginger to get me on board. As far as I'm concerned, the best musicals take place on a stage covered in trash.
But I sat for La La Land when it opened, and the spectacle wore me down and kind of won me over, as it was designed to do. I remember rich colors and loud jazz. The -algia in nostalgia signifies pain and distress. This particular Chazellian nostalgia came up to me and beat me over the head with a mallet until I had cartoon stars over my head.
Seven years later, I thought I could watch La La Land with a new perspective. I moved to Los Angeles in June, and La La Land is ostensibly about people just like me: people who move West, to the City of Angels, with a Dream. This is where I say that I don't really have a Dream. Not one Dream anyway. Such is the curse of a multidisciplinary artist like myself. I want to make some more music videos, or maybe reinvent the concept of the music video entirely. And I want to write a novel, which could then maybe turn into a movie. And I would like this blog to succeed — it would be cool to figure out how to make money from it, pay other people to write stuff for it, and eventually shift the entire paradigm of contemporary music writing to thrive beyond controversial numerical reviews and essays that commemorate various 5-, 10- and 15-year anniversaries.
"A dream is a wish your heart makes," goes a song written for a movie produced by one of the most legendary Hollywood sickos of all time. My main wish from my heart is to grill hot dogs with my friends forever. And you can do that in Los Angeles. You can grill every day, because the weather is so nice.
Ryan Gosling's Sebastian and Emma Stone's Mia have Dreams. Mia wants to be an actor. Sebastian, a jazz pianist, wants to open a club where traditional jazz is played and enjoyed. Simple enough, but the meat grinder of the City of Angels turns without cease. Mia languishes as a barista on the WB lot, bouncing from one disappointing audition to another (RIP Mia, you would have loved Covid self-tapes). Sebastian works gigs that embarrass him: an '80s cover band that makes him play poolside keytar, a restaurant residency where he's only allowed to play staid holiday classics and not his beloved JAZZ.
La La Land follows Sebastian and Mia's relationship, from wobbly flirtation to brief equilibrium to inevitable downfall, as the two fail to balance their romantic inclinations with career aspirations. Both characters achieve their Dreams, but not with each other. The film ends with a fantasy sequence that imagines what might have happened if their love had flourished alongside their careers, a number whose inclusion I assume is meant to restore the swooning, romantic feeling Chazelle took so much care to cultivate at the beginning of the movie — every valet stand a meet-cute opportunity, every traffic jam a stage — and send us all home without too much bitterness in our hearts.
I've got so many bones to pick with this movie that I feel as if I am eating a sloppily prepared whole fish. I think the music is boring, and I don't think either Gosling or Stone are good musical theater performers. A few days after I rewatched La La Land, I decided to watch Singin' In The Rain, which I had never seen before. It was so excellent that it made me upset at Chazelle's whole 0euvre. And it was because the performers were very, very good at singing and dancing. My eyeballs dried out because I didn't want to blink for a single second that Cyd Charisse was onscreen. If you love the transformative power of the movie musical, why are you casting someone who skeedle-deedles through her dance numbers, who whispers through his solos? Chazelle should be livid that Greta Gerwig got a better musical performance out of Ryan Gosling in Barbie than he did in La La Land.
And as far as I can understand there to be an underlying message of La La Land — a message that cross-contaminates Chazelle's other movies about the performing arts, Whiplash and Babylon — it is that capital-A Art is worth the suffering necessary to inspire it and produce it. You must bleed for good jazz drumming. You must eat shit in the audition room. You must be broke and monofocused and miserable, and then you can open the jazz club you've always wanted. You must perform a one-woman show for no one, you must cry a single tear out of one specific eye. Only through loss and sacrifice can you succeed. And then you will become a star, and it will all be worth it. You will experience Hollywood metempsychosis: your soul will merge with the screen and you will live forever.
Chazelle likes to glamorize the climb, then yadda-yadda the summit. We don't get to see more than a glimpse of the other side of La La Land's striving, five years later: Mia comes full-circle from her humble barista beginnings, visiting the coffee shop where she used to toil, this time as an easy-breezy oh-my-god-it's-HER actor on the lot. She comes home from work to a handsome husband and cute toddler daughter. "How is she?" she asks her husband. "She's great," he responds. It's like they're talking about an aunt that neither of them sees very often. Meanwhile Sebastian is alone, but he has his club, and it looks successful. You get the feeling he probably has to do things like mop the floors and count the registers himself, but the jazz flows each night, and the people clap for his pianocraft, and that's what Sebastian likes.
A star is someone who everyone knows. It's a level of success you cannot argue about. Not everyone likes stars, but everyone knows them. If you can't be a real star, you can at least be the most famous person you know. "Barbie has a great day every day, but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him." Some people only have a great day if someone looks at them, and some of those people move to Los Angeles, and Chazelle finds them very interesting. Sebastian and Mia can't be together because Mia wants a million eyeballs on her, and Sebastian's fine with just a few dozen ears. Discerning ears. JAZZ ears.
You know what I would like? I would like a movie like The Devil Wears Prada, but for a Hollywood trade publication instead of Vogue. I am tired of stars. I am not tired of DEALS. You can't have stars without deals. Who is signing the checks? Let me meet them. On second thought, don't listen to me. My favorite new television show is Entourage.
There is an interesting thing that has been happening, here in Los Angeles. When people ask me what I do, I've been testing out saying that I'm a music writer. And several times, people have heard music writer and thought I meant composer for film and TV. It happened just a couple nights ago — I started chatting with someone in a parking lot because the meter was confounding to us both, and we did our mutual career introductions, and she worked in showbiz, and started talking about industry recording studios I might know from my work. I didn't know how to explain to her that I had driven my car to Echo Park to go to an Irish hip-hop show for free, thanks to a PR invite, and this was success to me, or to the 15-year-old version of me with no spending money and no driver's license. I'm going to have to start saying music blogger, aren't I?
La La Land is not a movie about how hard you have to work to be good at something. It's about how hard you have to work for people to see how good you already are. In Suzy Exposito's profile of the drag performer Valentina in the L.A. Times, this quote from her has burrowed into my brain: "L.A. has this reputation for being fake, but that’s not my experience...it’s fake because there’s so many people coming here trying to make something of themselves. When I’m here, I’m not trying to make something of myself; I am something." Valentina is from L.A. but that sentiment feels New Yorky to me, because in New York City, everyone's the center of their own universe and the biggest star they know. Which takes me back to musicals again. In the end, I just can't deal with Mia, yowling weepily about the fools who dream. There is something too pristine about her ambition. Give me a bunch of messy, sweaty Broadway lunatics in spandex and legwarmers, blasting cigs, high-kicking for their lives. Give me A Chorus Line.