How to Rewrite La La Land

So I know I’m way behind on the hype and hoopla that followed in the wake of La La Land (hell, the Oscars were months ago now). I don’t know if it was the everyone-is-talking-about-it-so-I’m-staying far-away mentality or just not having the time, but I only got around to seeing Damien Chazelle’s film this morning. I watched it mostly because I had woken up too early and had some time to kill and thought it was something I should get around to eventually. So I settled down with some coffee and turned it on, unsure whether the movie would do all the awards and buzz justice.

And I liked it.

For the most part, that is.

Oh, and now that the analysis is about to start: SPOILERS.

I think the story, the directing, and the acting were all great, and absolutely the soundtrack was phenomenal. The film managed to play with camera angles, leading to some spectacular shots. The dancing in the stars bit from the planetarium was great. The spinning viewpoint during A Lovely Night was wonderful. And the coup de grace was of course the epilogue scene, with all the magical effects and my absolute favorite moment of Mia and Sebastian watching themselves playing with their hypothetical child on an old timey movie screen. In terms of acting, I think Emma Stone deserved her Oscar, and don’t get me started on the male side where Casey Affleck won (though I personally would’ve gone with Viggo Mortensen for his knockout portrayal of Ben Cash in Captain Fantastic).

However, after having finally watched the movie, I’m quite happy it didn’t end up winning Best Picture, Warren Beatty be damned. Like I’ve already said, as to arrest all detestation from what seemed to be most of the Earth’s population, I enjoyed this movie. But I think there are some major changes that should have be made that would have given La La Land a surefire Oscar.

I’ll cut right to the chase: this movie should not have been a musical.

Yes, the soundtrack is fantastic, all plaudits to Justin Hurwitz. Yes, the idea of a 50’s-style musical with jazzy rhythms and peppy dance numbers taking place in modern America sounds charming. But not this movie. Not with these actors. And not, especially, with this story.

First of all, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are not singers. Plain and simple. Movie actors singing in musicals has been tried many times before and, more often than not (looking at you Russell Crowe), it has failed. Like I said before, on acting alone, I think the two leads both produced five star performances. But if you’re going to make a movie musical, you need strong singers. They don’t need the voices of the best that Broadway has to offer, but they need to hold their own, which Stone and Gosling can not. Gene Kelley is exhibit A when it comes to the kind of movie musical-er I’m talking about.

Secondly, and more importantly, the wonderful story that this film tells would work far better outside the package of a musical. There are a number of times in La La Land that would resonate much better if they were not interrupted by a sudden song. I’m going to focus on one in particular: Mia’s audition.

Here, what can be seen as maybe the climax of the movie along with the epilogue, Mia tells the story of her aunt living in Paris. She starts speaking the first line or two, but then falls into a wistful song dedicated to the fools who dream. While this may be Stone’s best moment with respect to singing, how much better would it have been if she delivered this as a straight monologue?

For one, we get a lot of Sebastian’s jazz throughout. But we get next to none of Mia’s acting. This would’ve been the moment. And Emma Stone has the chops to turn this into a truly special cinematic moment. She could transition from a nervous intro about her aunt into a real and deep meditation on what it means to be a fool who dreams. That would carry so much more weight than a song sung by an actor.

Of course, singing should remain, it’s important to the tone of the movie. But do it like Pitch Perfect or any number of movies that have singing only where it would actually happen in reality. Leave the special moments for the A-list actors to kick out of the park.

Now, imagine the epilogue scene exactly as it is, the only difference being the movie you’ve been watching for the better part of two hours was not a musical. You wouldn’t be expecting to be taken out of normalcy into a world of song and dance. And so, when the life that Mia and Sebastian might have lived was suddenly told to you in in the realm of snapping and stage sets, how could you not be moved?

La La Land was good. Undeniable. But it could have been so much better. Instead of a being a recreation of 50’s era movie musicals, it could have been an homage to them instead. It could have been a story told in a snappy tone with jazzy accents, while capturing the best skills of its lead actors. It’s a pity that I can’t go back in time to make these changes. With them, La La Land could’ve been one of my favorites.

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Ghibli: Cartoons Realer Than Life

The age of cartoons, at least when it comes to movies, seems to be over. To be fair, it’s probably been over for a while, with CGI Pixar-esque films the only real non-live action movies being made. While some of these movies are fantastic (Up and Wall-e great examples), modern animated films are being made to looker realer and realer. The big advantage that animated films have over live action is the ability to do whatever the filmmakers want to do, be it magic, robots, or any sort of physics-defying premises. That’s all well and good, but they still seem so fake (as might not be unexpected). While these movies continue their march towards reality, Studio Ghibli’s vast portfolio has already been there for decades.

Even though most are doused with all sorts of magic and fantasy, all portrayed by 2-dimensional characters in 2-dimensional worlds, Ghibli films are realer than most live action movies out there. So much of modern movies are full of action, adventure, and never-ending suspense, and while Ghibli incorporates these themes from time to time, their best moments are when they slow down and look at the various caveats of life. Live action films can do this quite well at times, but the incredible consistency across the Ghibli canon in exploring these facets is remarkable, and is what makes them so special.

Ghibli’s usage of cartoons (of course called anime in Japan) is what allows its films, the wonderful storytelling abilities of Miyazaki et al aside, to investigate those themes so wonderfully. Each Ghibli film is a work of art in itself, with gorgeous drawings and animations creating an eye-catching spectacle. This artistic nature is what allows the films to explore reality so well, in that they provide a way to view life with the weight, separation, fantasy, and importance that we give it. Everyone views things differently, and our minds elaborate on what we experience, because we live in our mind, not outside it.

Ghibli’s ability to take one step out of reality is its greatest asset. The scenes in the heartbreaking Grave of the Fireflies would be too gut-wrenching to see in live action, yet that film explores the life in war-torn Japan expertly. Throughout films like My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Whisper of the Heart, the filmmakers paint a picture of the magical nature of everyday life, something that would seem mundane if a camera was simply pointed at some people. In Spirited Away, the indomitable bath house and the various spirits within are surely closer to representing the challenges a child faces growing up than simply portraying those ideas with images we see every day.  Princess Mononoke, a film set around battle between humans and gods, illustrates the very real environmental situation we find ourselves in better than most. The list can go on and on.

To anyone who hasn’t seen Ghibli movies, to anyone who is hesitant to see Ghibli movies, and to anyone who doesn’t think cartoons can make a great movie, highly highly highly encourage them to give Ghibli a try. Their ability to depict life’s great facets in mesmerizing fashion is unparalleled in film. Their wonderful themes and artwork are accented gloriously with beautiful scores by excellent composers like Joe Hisaishi, among others. Best of all, they paint life as we really see it: through our mind’s eye, enhanced by our thoughts and imagination.