La La Land
Produced by Summit Entertainment
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Distributed by Liongate
Produced and distributed by
The Weinstein Company
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Screenplay by Robert D. Siegel
In last month’s issue, no less a cinematic authority than Taki pronounced La La Land delightful (“Beyond the Idiot Box,” Under the Black Flag), a judgment with which I thoroughly agree.
This movie does something I despaired of ever seeing again. Director Damien Chazelle has reinvented the kind of musical Fred Astaire was making with Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, and Cyd Charisse from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. And it’s just what’s needed now.
Astaire’s films helped lift Americans from the Depression not by mounting analyses of its causes and possible remedies, but by reminding them of the restorative properties of hope allied with buoyant energy.
They were delightfully airy soufflés that were whipped up by means of Spartan discipline. Rogers had the proof: her blood-stained shoes. Astaire was a perfectionist who insisted on innumerable rehearsals, followed by dozens of takes. During the elaborate staircase dance they performed in Swing Time (1936), she literally bled for her art.
It appears Chazelle has a similar commitment to perfection. As in the Astaire-Rogers films, his narrative is traditional to the point of banality, yet sturdy enough to carry his vast intentions. Two ambitious young people, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), meet by accident in Los Angeles, where they’ve been laboring to fulfill their dreams. She’s trying to become an actress; he’s a musician determined to revive the glorious jazz of the last century, uncontaminated by synthesizers and amplifiers. Of course, the couple fall in love, only to discover soon afterward that their aspirations are hindering their romance. Sound familiar? Of course. It’s utterly shopworn. But by deftly stylizing his new telling of an old story, Chazelle has made a consistently dazzling film.
The music is varied—joyful one moment, haunting the next. Although Stone and Gosling have been strenuously rehearsed, their dancing is not nearly of the caliber of that of Astaire and Rogers. But it’s not supposed to be. These characters are real people who by means of dance occasionally glide into an ideal realm of the imagination. From one scene to the next, we’re immersed at once in fantasy and reality. And this is where the film’s visual design comes into play, giving the drama a look that is exquisitely transporting.
The film begins with an all too familiar freeway traffic jam. One by one, drivers dressed in primary colors step out of their cars and begin dancing exuberantly on their hoods and roofs to a samba beat.
With this early scene, Chazelle announces his film’s theme: the inevitable conflict between reality and imagination. A scene or two later, we’re on a bluff looking at a sweeping, painterly horizon. The violet sky above shades into lighter tints of blue and then turquoise as the camera descends into a salmon-colored blaze of a well-staged sunset. The shot would need no more justification than its own beauty, but it carries a further purpose. This color contrast is repeated in various shades and contexts throughout the film. When Mia and Sebastian longingly discuss their aspirations, they do so sitting at an ordinary kitchen table in front of a dreamily sheer turquoise curtain. Then the camera pulls back to reveal a mutely demanding wall painted salmon. Such is the uneasy balance of imagination and life. Later, in a dim jazz club, key lights over Sebastian’s piano bathe his face right and left in the same two colors. And so we’re alerted to the struggle to come. The lovers’ devotion to each other will be tested by their conflicting aspirations.
Mia finally gets the break she’s been waiting for, but it requires her to spend two years in Paris making a movie; meanwhile, Sebastian is getting closer to his dream of owning his own jazz club, in which he’ll be free to play the music to which he’s dedicated. You can see where this is going.
Chazelle cleverly rings some changes on the standard template and by so doing gives his story a poignant denouement for which I was entirely unprepared. This is presented in a fantasy reprise of the lovers’ relationship as they jointly imagine what might have happened, had they made different choices along the way. This sequence resembles how ballets render emotional changes through the passage of time: a rapid sequence of glancing images and physical movement set against an unapologetically painted background. It’s reminiscent of several musicals made in the 1950’s, such as the justly admired Central Park dance Charisse and Astaire performed in The Bandwagon to Arthur Schwartz’s achingly wondrous “Dancing in the Dark.”
La La Land has other charms, not least of which is its romantic restraint. Despite the story’s manifest artificiality, Mia and Sebastian have something like a genuine romance. After meeting, they don’t rush to bed. In fact, they don’t get there for what seems, if I counted the seasonal cues aright, to be half a year. It might have been even more heartening had these young folk paused for marriage first, but you have to take what you can get in our heedless age. Even the slenderest pause on the way to the bedclothes should be welcomed.
Chazelle has informed his rendition of the musical with a challenging nostalgia for genuine artistic achievement. He has undertaken to do nothing less than elevate America’s aesthetic taste by invoking its sublime origins in an earlier time. I find his effort extraordinarily hopeful. He’s a young man of 32 who’s not afraid to look back. His film seems to me in league with what Tom Ford has attempted with Nocturnal Animals, a story from the altogether different tradition of mystery and crime. Both directors have had the salutary audacity to question contemporary artistic trends, implicitly faulting them for surrendering to vulgar tastes manufactured by the marketplace. Their efforts are positively rousing.
The Founder also considers ambition and the troubles it can occasion. It tells the story of Ray Kroc, the man who stole McDonald’s from its actual founders, the McDonald brothers, Dick and Mac. Kroc visited the brothers’ innovative and mildly successful hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California, in 1954. (Burgers, fries, and shakes, nothing more, not even utensils, ready at the counter in 30 seconds.) Kroc was smitten. He didn’t smell grease and french fries; he smelled the fragrant elixir of opportunity. Soon, he set about turning the operation into the multibillion-dollar business we know and despise today. (Well, some of us do.)
In fairness, it must be said that the McDonalds might have prevented Kroc’s legally engineered theft had they not played so sharp a game with the parvenu upstart. When they hesitantly admit him into their business, he’s not presented as having been a capitalist Machiavel—at least not at first. We initially meet him unsuccessfully hawking milkshake mixers to drive-in eateries throughout the Midwest. On the road, he brings a record player so he can play LP recordings of his favorite inspirational book. Although given a fictive title in the film, it’s unmistakably Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. I doubt Kroc ever heard of the treatise that undergirds Peale’s—The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, by Max Weber—but there’s little doubt he embodied its thesis. He couldn’t have been more an exemplar of America’s founding ethic had he arrived at Cape Cod in 1620. Prosperity, the Puritans believed, is the outward sign of one’s godliness; the greater one’s prosperity, the godlier he becomes. Not that the thrice-married, contract-breaking, plagiarizing Kroc was godly in the usual sense of the word. He was, however, indisputably prophetic.
Recognizing the unrealized potential of the McDonalds’ stand, he offered to share his vision of things to come with them. He had little else to share. After overcoming the brothers’ conservative resistance to innovation, he became their associate, setting up Midwestern franchises with missionary zeal. He saw the crude golden arches the brothers had put up to call attention to their stand as a variant of the crosses atop small-town steeples. They would foster America’s new religion, in which Mammon would abet spiritual salvation. How could things go wrong?
Trouble surfaces early on, however. Kroc discovers that, despite the revenue stream he is establishing, he hasn’t enough money to meet his overhead. In his enthusiasm to transform McDonald’s into a cash cow, he hadn’t taken into account that the 1.4 percent share of the profits the brothers had allotted him wasn’t enough to keep him afloat. When he asks for a larger share, the brothers will not listen to him. It’s then that Kroc turns schemer with the help of a shrewd financial analyst. Kroc had been retaining franchisees who were responsible for buying the land on which he built their stands. Now he began buying the land himself and leasing it to the franchisees. This gave him a steady cash flow and the right to exert more control over how the businesses were run.
It’s easy to see Kroc as a capitalist monster, but this judgment is too simple. Given the risks and costs entrepreneurs incur—loans, legal fees, employee benefits, taxes—it’s little wonder that many business owners are at times driven to what others might regard as monstrous excesses. I saw The Founder with my friends Alice and Bill, whose reaction to the story was markedly different from mine. I had agreed with the film’s negative portrayal of Kroc. But they saw Kroc as a reasonable, even generous businessman. Sure, Kroc bullied the McDonalds into selling him their company and later refused to pay them the annual one-percent share of the profits he had promised them, profits that would have amounted to hundreds of millions over the years. But Alice argued reasonably enough that Kroc had paid the McDonalds $2.7 million in 1961 dollars, a sum they would never had realized themselves, given their cautious business practices.
Alice and Bill own their physical-therapy practice and thus know from experience the risks and challenges of operating a small business. While they didn’t entirely approve of Kroc, they understood him.
As Kroc, Michael Keaton uses his manic smile to render a desperate, driven man ready to stop at almost nothing as he grasps for the American dream. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, playing the McDonald brothers, are both superb as decent men dedicated to making money without selling their souls, a sale their junior partner seems to have been all too willing to close.