Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Case Against La La Land

I’ve verbally slapped myself more than a few times trying to coax an emotion anywhere near the excitement academy members lustfully oozed awarding the motion picture La La Land a record-tying fourteen Oscar nominations. “La La” is being touted a great musical – a breakthrough homage to musicals past and blueprint for future adventures.

Going in, I was willing to let the hype carry me as far as dignity would allow. I’m the guy who bought the score book for West Side Story and sits in front of the piano and marvels while flipping page to page at the notes scattered before me. How the hell did Leonard Bernstein come up with these glorious melodies, spectacular transitions, the orchestrations, and out-worldly harmonies? This is a page turner up there with the greatest novels ever written.

Late summer I caught Woody Allen’s Café Society. Reviews were all over the place from hate to love. Allen deserves our respect – at least that of musicians. Woodman plays honest with the music. Café Society is set in 1930s Hollywood and stays true to the moment with classic’s such as “Manhattan, My Romance, This Can’t Be Love, Mountain Greenery”, perfectly situated underneath the sumptuous visuals. For a film that received little fanfare and less publicity, it’s still pulled in $43,700,000 at the box office so far.

My partner and I fought for a clear view of the giant screen at the Varsity Cinema and fixed eyeballs straight ahead. “Bam” – the big opening – a lavish dance number in, around and on cars. Yes! This is grand. Wait! What the hell is going on with the song? I’m hearing this shallow vacuous non-stick sing-a-long that could have been borrowed from a mid-1970s Saturday Night Live skit. Remember the one with the Andy Williams like sweater kids, bopping to a white rhythm? Or at least one invested in humor much like those Lawrence Welk bip-alongs. Loved the title, “Another Day of Sun.” O.K. – move on. Here comes the story.

Jazz boy meets coffee shop girl. Jazz boy thinks about the big jazz jam; coffee shop girl wants to get into film. Jazz boy suffers for his art so he repeatedly plays this insipid whole tone piano riff as if this chunk of nothingness needs mastered. Where’s “All That Jazz?” I’m ready and willing.

Boy lands gig in super-club. Christmas time – Christmas music. Boy wants to blow some far-out jazz. Owner demands he play from a restricted list. O.K. Let me digress a bit. I’ve played at least fifty-five Christmas seasons and jazz-upped the songs. Never have I been fired for freshening the music up with a jazzy embellishment or harmonic rewrite. In fact, that’s when people drop by the piano and give you that –Wow! sign and the owner says thanks, “Great night!” Maybe west coast Christmas gigs in La La Land are quite different than the social parties we on the east coast are privy.
Composer Justin Hurwitz crafted the score for La La Land and last year’s other celebrated music film, Whiplash – another fairy tale of teacher abuses student to greatness. Bullshit!

I have greater animosity towards Whiplash than I do for La La Land. “La La” doesn’t reside in an institution of greater learning.  And nobody’s getting slapped around or demeaned – it’s just good old jazz suffering. I think?

As a film La La Land is fun. A diversion from day to day brain sucking Trumpettes. It’s sweet, likeable and a must needed reprieve from the dullness of work. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are perfectly cast and benefit from a finely tuned and witty script. That said – I gave the film a second and third try. Second visit lasted ten minutes; the third – 44 minutes. Couldn’t do it. One thing kept nagging at me – the fucking music! Beyond tolerating.

I’m neither here nor there with musicals – usually middle ground. I loved the musical Chicago – the songs were out of my love zone but I could sing them and got their choreographic purpose and occasionally perform with aspiring and celebrated vocalists. Serious craft!

I really enjoyed Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge set in 1900 in the Montmarte Quarter of Paris – the grand old cabaret house. I loved it so much it was a first stop when visiting Paris, a couple years back. Even the academy bought in, awarding it eight Oscar nominations back in 2001.

Golden Globes! This is when I hid in my imaginary mind shelter. No – say it ain’t so! Word leaks in - “La La” captures Best Original Score and Best Original song for Hurwitz.

I can get past the score thing even though I’ve heard grand music coming from Moonlight and other nominees. And let’s not forget Toronto’s own – Michael Danna’s Oscar win for Best Original Score from Life of Pi in 2013. Sheer brilliance!

But “Best Original Song”, this is where I push my damper pedal to the floor. “City of Stars “had me pulling my ears and lips off in the cinema. It was if the melody was produce-clichés run through a Veg-O-Matic - then formalized by a thought computer. How do you make something from nothing? You don’t. You just pretend it’s something. From the song’s introduction to film’s end that galling melody poked at me like an implement of Inquisition torture.

Movies are made to entertain and carry us beyond the normal and help us temporarily escape. My partner hates war movies and anything that has to do with Nazi’s. I appreciate. Anyone who has spent their life as a working musician has entertained every tone, chord, melody, score, chart, recording the ears could handle. We are somewhat sensitive to bland. Shitty? Bring it on. Never bland. The greatest crime of all.

Until recently I’ve lived mostly alone with my impressions of “La La” until I came across a musician’s forum on Facebook. Not an ordinary gathering of bar band musicians or weekend hopefuls – but the crème of the industry. In parting, here are a few of their thoughts. The names have been withheld to protect the not-so-innocent and that potential film composing gig.

“Watching all the nominations for the SAG awards I was transported by Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight and Lion, I had a great time watching Hidden Figures and Girl On A Train....but when it came to La La Land - I was embarrassed - it seemed like a high school.”

“Horrible songs. Well, you can't have anything.”
“The "jazz" was very white and west coast, totally lacking in soul or character or edge.”
“I totally agree, La La is an insult to singers, dancers, songwriters, and arrangers.
“Couldn´t agree more. His "jazz theme" was a joke.”
“The word, according to Zappa is, "Sears" - are those real musical songs or are they Sears songs? i agree. They were shallow and plastic; nothing memorable.”
“Totally agree. It's like when people ask me if I liked the movie Whiplash. FAKE!!!!!!!!”
“That's the best description of those songs I've heard yet. "Pretend Songs." Although I greatly appreciate everything that went into that movie, you can't really compare those particular songs to an actual, bona fide songwriter's songs. Just my personal opinion; so no haters please. I'm thrilled they made a movie that employed so many musicians & dancers.”
“Cruise ship quality. Typical of Broadway musicals. Trite clichéd lyrics.”

“Exactly. Nothing melodically memorable, nothing harmonically logical or interesting and absolutely nothing lyrically to say. (I nudged the woman next to me and said I would tell my 8th graders to try a new angle, find a catchy melody.....something ...”

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