Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Are you there yet?

reflects on the La La Land mania

La La Land
La La Land

“Are you crazy, Mum?” So my 15-year-old received me at the door when I last came back from the movie theatre. “You really saw the same film for a third time?” The film was Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, and her incredulity made me wonder what it was about it that captivated me: ingenious jazz, perfect acting, amazing costumes, dazzling colour or all of the above? I eventually concluded that the real reason was the nostalgia it evoked in me, which made me wonder what a writer who lives in the Third World with conservative and religious tendencies like myself could possibly be nostalgic for in a US romantic musical. It seems the glamour and romance of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood is deeply lodged in the psyches of those who grew up in the 1970s after all, regardless even of who they are. A 2017 best picture Oscar nominee, La la Land tells the love story of a jazz pianist and an aspiring actress, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) struggling to make it in Los Angeles.
“Why do you talk about romance as if it was a dirty word?” Sebastian snaps at his sister when she comes to check on him at his studio, urging him to settle down to a normal life. Why do critics talk about nostalgia as if it was a dirty word, I want to snap in turn. Surely the materialism and politicisation with which we are surrounded should make it permissible to yearn for colours and fabrics, dancing and love? Indeed, making use of Mary Zophres’ excellent costume design, Chazelle manages to produce an enthralling animated painting in every scene from the opening when a traffic jam on the freeway in LA has everyone coming out of their cars and joining  in a lovely dance and song, Another Day of Sun, which recalled the Reda Group dance in the 1962 Egyptian film Mid-Year Vacation. It had the same spirit, youthful energy and catchy lyrics. Likewise Mia’s dresses brought to mind such screen local screen legends as Faten Hamama, Magda, Zebieda Tharwat and Soad Hosni.
But perhaps Justin Hurwitz’s music was the most powerful element of all, bringing La la, LA, the Land of Dreams  to life, conflating the city with the inner, individual La la land in each of us, represented in City of Stars, the song Sebastian performs all by himself while walking down a bridge, and in which he wonders whether he can realise his dreams of love and success. And it’s interesting that, for both Mia and Sebastian, loves seems accidental and secondary to the dream of professional self-realisation; this is part of the reason the romantic nostalgia works so well. Although the love story is central in the movie, the core theme is not about the romance but rather about how hard it is to follow your dreams. Another point of strength is the implicit discussion of the identity issue.
The charismatic performance of Stone in the role of struggling young actress who almost gives up before her lover’s encouragement pushes her into one last audition – the one that turns out to be her break, sending her to Paris while Sebastian manages to open his own jazz cafe and reinvent the genre. Her facial expressions at moments of failure, anger, contentment and joy constitute an unspoken dialogue, while it is through the dances choreographed by Mandy Moore – and featuring tap dancing and tango – that the story develops. And yet the reason why the couple decide to split remains somewhat vague. They’ve had their own disappointments and small clashes, but it is not an enough reason for them to give up on their love. It is tragic how, while they both succeed in their careers, they end up separated and alone. That couple’s ambitions overcame their desire to stay together was a great disappointment. However, I did not feel sad, because of the overwhelming feelings of love and joy and the fact that they did after all get what they wanted.

Having started with a traffic jam, the film ends with one too. This time it is at night, five years after the couple’s separation: Mia and her husband, whom she met in Paris, are on their way to an event but the traffic forces them away from their original destination and, drawn to the sound of music, they end up at Sebastian’s establishment: while they stop there, with Sebastian playing the piano, a flashback suggests an alternative life in which Mia and Sebastian – happily married and no less successful – are at a differently named jazz cafe together. This adds layers to the questions and conflicts evoked by the film, but it is important to remember that none of these ideas would be interesting without the heavenly sights and sounds that make this such a fantastically nostalgic experience.

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