What the incredibly successful La La Land proves is that there’s still life in the old Hollywood dog yet – by life I mean movies with something to say and some artistry to prove – but that said life is dependent on the life support of star power, glitz and glamour and an easily digestible ‘message’ that has to feel both enriching while remaining more or less unchallenging.
A musical with a solid – though in all possible ways ‘youthful’ – pedigree, La La Land manages to be a strange temporal vortex of nostalgic yearning and contemporary cynicism, powered by young leads and a young director (Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle) who know the rhythms of the past classics they are channeling but who want to take that extra step out of the comfort zone.
La La Land is yet another one of those films that wants to have the cake and eat it too – an attempt to sneak something of depth and significance to an audience hardly keen to do the necessary work – or rejig their sensibilities enough to absorb something more subtle and detailed than a listsicle – enough to take in something that would truly discombobulate them. There are fine examples of such films even in recent memory; Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is one, with Leonardo Di Caprio’s Jordan Belfort a captivating and disgusting presence in equal measure.
Hedging its bets more or less all the way, La La Land – which declares itself as a nostalgia object frankly and early into the running time – doesn’t quite achieve those heights. But neither does it plummet into the worst of the middlebrow offences, such as the dramatic films Will Smith tends to star in – Collateral Beauty, The Pursuit of Happyness – which offer up a surge of uplifting sham-wisdom that’s an easy fix with no substance or aftertaste: the cinematic equivalent of a Paolo Coelho novel.
If films are going to give us something other than a temporary distraction, they need to be given room to linger in the mind. They don’t have to be ‘intellectual’. They don’t have to be ‘artsy’. But what they have to be is films that offer up more than just nuggets of half-baked pseudo-wisdom, like La La Land’s inherent belief that art and ‘life’ do no mix, and that successful artists can never hope to have a satisfying emotional and domestic life. This is the encrusting motion of banality being put into full force: the application of a stereotype to something that aims to be more than that, but whose central idea cannot sustain anything beyond the superficial.
The problem with La La Land is not that its central idea is a common one, but that it treats it as if it’s something particularly original that we should crowd around. Unlike other truths in storytelling – which tend to be more universal – writer-director Chazelle treats the idea that art and life cannot mix as something of a hard, economical fact and not an airy trope.
But the world needs archetypal storytelling that makes us contemplate about bigger things. It craves this – and it should get it even in its most populist and trashiest form. The return of the Star Wars universe to the annual blockbuster cycle is living proof of this. We need stories that communicate things we feel deeply about and deliver them in a cogent and coherent way. We need stories that remind us that above all, storytelling is ritual – it is in the confident repetition of certain tropes that life gains meaning. We need stories that remind us how storytelling can replace religion in an increasingly secular – but equally uncertain – world.
Let’s say no to bland and indecisive movies, and embrace the true and eternal core of storytelling.
You can read Teodor Relijc’s full article on this month’s issue of VIDA.
© 2017 – VIDA Magazine – Teodor Relijc