I like to think of myself as a maverick, bucking trends, trotting down my own path. I'd rather camp in a snowy forest than bronze on a sunny beach. I prefer B.B. King to Beyoncé. I have yet to see Hamilton.
Still from La La Land. PC Dale Robinette.
But over the weekend, I did see the film that waltzed home with an armful of Oscars (if not, in the end, Best Picture): Damien Chazelle's La La Land. And, a bit reluctantly, I found myself aswoon in the jade pools of Mia's (Emma Stone) eyes, stirred by Sebastien's (Ryan Gosling) heartfelt idealism, rooting for the two dreamers to triumph in their respective art forms and, especially, in their romance.
I let go of my cynicism and gave in to the film. And I loved it.
Sure, Mandy Moore's choreography could have delivered more sophistication and polish, but not without bona-fide dancers—and lesser, or at least less-accomplished actors—in the leads.
Still from the opening scene of La La Land. PC Dale Robinette.
The score—whimsical classical, swelling ballads, jazz ranging from big band to bebop, and A Flock of Seagulls flyby—was subtly, earnestly affecting. A measure of restraint seemed to bind the music and dancing and buoy their collective potency; as Seb's forebear Thelonious Monk famously observed, What you don't play can be more important than what you do.
Although Mia's final song veered precariously into the sentimental, after exiting the theater, I didn't feel like anything had been shoved down my throat, the way I do when I watch a superhero movie, or a current White House press briefing. On the contrary, there was a hint of jaunt in my gait, and I felt light as air. I may or may not have performed a dorky little soft shoe for my wife when she emerged from the Regal Union Square Stadium 14 ladies' room.
Some people have expressed reservations about La La Land's embrace of nostalgia. But I'd venture that our intellectual wingspan is broad enough to honor historical periods' redeeming features, however trivial—in this instance, the mainstream popularity of dance and jazz—while still recognizing their grave failures.
Questions have also been raised about the responsibility of artists in turbulent times such as our own, about the ethics of creating apolitical, escapist works when the here and now call for urgent action. But La La Land guilelessly celebrates the arts, and thus the film is a political statement, if a faintly self-indulgent one. Regardless, is offering a two-hour egress from reality such a dereliction of duty? Maybe we'll return refreshed, inspired, our jaws set and shoulders leveled to tackle the issues of today.
I'm convinced that the La La Land quibblers are part curmudgeon. Give them a dozen roses, they'll grasp the petals and sniff the thorns. I'm several parts curmudgeon myself, so I can spot the species.
But I did watch and thoroughly enjoy several of this year's Best Picture Oscar nominees: Manchester by the Sea (poetic, in its way, and duly sad), Moonlight (beautiful, relevant and deserving of its win), and Hell or High Water (saw it twice because it's plain badass). Comparing them is like comparing a Braeburn apple to a Florida orange to a Texas prickly pear; they're all diverse and worthwhile flicks.
None, however, have lingered with me like La La Land. None of them compelled me to dust off a Coltrane or Bud Powell masterpiece and gather my girl up in my arms for a swing around the living room. None made me loath to let go of her afterwards.
La La Land is all shimmering stars, silhouetted palms, sunsets burning grandly over sweeping Los Angeles skylines. The eyes, and all the senses, are fed a feast: the film's photography, writing, sets and costumes, music, singing, and yes, dancing, are the ingredients of a sublime meal.
The passions get their fill, too; above all, La La Land is a love story, although the film doesn't require the backdrop of a sinking ocean liner or whizzing bullets to make you feel the stakes. It just needs a little song, a little dance, a little surrender from the so-called mavericks among us.