February 5, 2017

Did you get the joke?

I loved La La Land from the moment I realized that the opening all-singing, all-dancing number was not an overblown, cynical attempt to create a hit movie combining new Bollywood ,old Hollywood, and modern diversity. That number was intended to leave us flat despite it being the biggest, most expansive and expensive scene in the show. It was ridiculous. It was a joke.

 I loved La La Land because to me the whole thing was high comedy, from the opening number to casting stars who can't sing to Ryan Gosling's knowing wink at the ending.

To me La La Land was a kindly, sad grandpa speaking wistfully of the impossibility of recreating the past while at the same time harboring an ineffable love for it. The movie illustrated this conceit in the three arenas of marriage, jazz, and musical theater, in all of which I have not a little experience.

For a long time I've been unsatisfied with everything new in musical theater since early Andrew Lloyd Webber. New shows seemed unable to simultaneously provide an engaging story and a fresh, upbeat, non-derivative score. Lin-Manuel Miranda almost got it right in In the Heights and then he hit the home run with his next work. I was struck in Hamilton by the broad range of musical genres Miranda pulled off from ballads to hip-hop. The magic ingredient of a resonant political message pushed it over the top.

Jazz, similarly, seemed to dribble to a standstill in the early '60s. How do you keep creating music in a genre that by its very nature deconstructs the past? It eats its own tail. Jazz clubs in Seattle, like Gosling's in La La Land, play music that might have come from 50 years ago to an audience of white-hairs. There's no money in it.

It remains to be seen what will happen to the institution of marriage in the West but for the last 50 years it's been on a similar path of deconstruction. One man and one woman for a lifetime seems quaint, antiquated, and even hateful. Did families like the Cleavers ever really exist? It seems hard to remember.

From the awkwardly derivative opening number to the embarrassingly inept allusions to Astaire and Rogers, La La Land showed us that no matter how much we might want to preserve the past, time marches on. The choice isn't between a sad attachment to nostalgia or a successful modern life, because how can there be success if you give up everything you love? Ultimately you do what you do and you live with the sadness.

That is, until you get the joke.

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