In my elementary school music class, in addition to learning to play the recorder — and we played a lot of recorder — each year we watched one movie musical. In the third grade it was “Singin' in the Rain.” It’s hard even now to describe what it felt like to watch something like that for the first time. Sitting on the choir risers, craning my neck to watch from the small VCR-only TV hanging from the corner of the ceiling. It reminds me of a poem by Marilyn Nelson, in which she recalls hearing poetry for the first time. The room melted away, and it was just me and Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds.
I have been looking all over for that feeling. And I have found it here and there, in moments of other movies. But rarely (almost never) as wholly as I did when watching “La La Land.”
Recently in my columns, I have praised a lot of movies for being “anti-referential,” which, in addition to being pretentious as hell, I defined as movies that exist on their own, without homage or reference to film history. Movies without acknowledgement of the base they were built upon — movies wholly unlike those of Tarantino, which exist, almost entirely, as a series of film references and homages.
“La La Land” isn’t “anti-referential” (and really, nothing can be); it’s anti-cynical. It’s purely, unabashedly enthusiastic. It loves without embarrassment the foundation it was built upon. When Ryan Gosling slides around that light post I could feel in my chest the smallest of flickers, a little spark of love.
“La La Land” is a film built on a foundation of love, one that pulses through every shot, every beat and every note.
And it wasn’t just another movie about the magic of movies; it was a movie that was magic. That’s why, as I left the theater, I was overwhelmed with emotion. Movies like “La La Land” remind me why I love what I love.
Something I want to do more is give suggestions for companion pieces for recent movies I have loved. I have a pairing suggestion for “La La Land.” For maximum effect, read Zadie Smith’s latest novel, “Swing Time.” The book is about two girls, both dancers. One “has it” and the other does not. But Smith chooses to give voice to the one who is never going to make it as a dancer. Through her, the audience sees the world through the eyes of someone who loves dance, and more specifically movies about dance — the very same Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers-type thing that has its fingerprints all over “La La Land.”
Much like “La La Land,” “Swing Time” is interested in the way art, especially film and dance, shape our understanding of the world. Much of how the narrator sees and interacts with the world is shaped by the musicals she watched as a child. She talks about these movies in a way that mirrors how I found myself talking about “La La Land.” At one point she notes: “The opera-like comings and goings, the reversals of fortune, the outrageous meet cutes and coincidences…. To me they were only roads leading to the dance. The story was the price you paid for the rhythm.” This is, of course, the perfect rebuttal to the argument that the plot of “La La Land” is unrealistic. The plot is not the point! The point is the spectacle that the plot lets happen, the song and dance, the pure splendor of the whole production.
Another thing the two share is a certain self-awareness of their own nostalgia and the danger that that kind of dreaminess carries. It seems, at first, in “La La Land” that Mia’s is more enthralled in her own nostalgia — early shots of her stand out for their saturated colors and her final ballad is an ode to the “fools who dream.” But, it’s Sebastian’s brand of nostalgia, as well as the desperation that accompanies it, that becomes crippling. He’s so wedded to his own idea of what jazz needs to be that he can’t adapt his dreams to the reality of his world. His nostalgia becomes his ethos and Mia must leave him behind — surrounded, quite literally, by relics of the past — as she moves forwards toward her own success.
The narrator in “Swing Time” falls somewhere close to Sebastian’s breed of nostalgia, although hers is a little more complex. It’s nostalgia both for the art (in this case, movie musicals) of her childhood, but also the childhood itself and the friendship she has that colors most of that time.
Although perhaps more the darker cousin than “La La Land” ’s true companion, “Swing Time” is enhanced by and in turn enhances the viewing of the movie. I cannot suggest either one highly enough.