In the movie business, summer and holiday blockbusters are mostly either two hours of explosions or Disney cartoons. In between is the award season, when the adult films are shown. Last year’s award-nominated crop included the movie, “La La Land” which is an update of a traditional Hollywood musical.
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The plot concerns two striving young artists who sing and dance their way into the limelight. The opening number takes place on a freeway overpass. The principal characters, who haven’t met and fallen in love yet, are trapped in a monumental Los Angeles traffic jam. Up until this part, the movie is realistic- it’s a traffic jam. Then whimsical movie musical magic takes over. The characters pop out of their cars and start singing and dancing on the pavement. Traffic jams are pretty common on LA freeways, but breaking out into song and dance on them is not.
The scene was filmed using an actual freeway ramp which was actually closed down to film it.
What is perhaps more fantastic than that is the film’s depiction of Los Angeles. The LA of La La Land is an urbane, pleasant place with defined streetscapes. In this LA, everyone sips coffee at cafes and walks everywhere (because, you can’t tap dance inside your car). When not hoofing into the next musical number, the stars pine and emote along tree-shaded, backlit sidewalks with nary a fast food joint in sight. It is a fantasy movie of sorts. At the planetarium, the dance number lifts off the ground, literally, and the star-crossed lovers float in space. But back on earth, the movie makers have created a version of LA that doesn’t really exist. Or, it exists only in really small doses in between the stark reality of the parking-lot strewn, freeway crossed, sprawled out glopscapes of the Valley.
Photo taken by Remi Jouan, CC BY-SA 3.0
Musicals are not supposed to closely reflect on reality, and this film is escapist and a complete joy, in its story, song and dance, and utopian vision of southern California. The plot comes full circle at the end, and if you haven’t seen it I won’t give away the details. But, infrastructure spoiler alert: there is one more freeway at the end, and one more traffic jam, and that injection of California reality drives the final, bittersweet scenes. La La Land was up for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture. At one point during the award ceremony, it actually won the Best Picture statue. But that, too, was a fleeting fantasy, since the one delivering the award failed at the one task she was assigned to do that evening.
So the award floated up into the ether, and the next day, Los Angelinos stacked up on the freeways, and no one danced.
For 2019, the Academy has debated inventing new award categories to drum up more interest. At this time there is not a category for “Best Fantasy Reinvention of a City Landscape” but if there was, the movie would have been a lock for that trophy.