I remember falling in love with the trailer of ‘La La Land’ the moment I saw it for the first time. I was practically giddy the whole day! It took another three months for it to get released in theaters near me. It was the polar vortex week in Minnesota. Despite the temperature being in negative twenties and the snowfall, I literally ran to the theater for the matinée show right after I was done with my last final exam. Honestly, I was a little skeptical and a bit worried since a musical cinematic experience is not quite my tempo. Then, all of a sudden, the exuberant opening number ‘Another Day of Sun’ just exploded out of thin air and proudly, confidently proclaimed : “This is going to be a colorful, lavish, unbelievably surreal yet intimate musical ride that’s going to make you stare at the screen in awe. So, brace yourself”. I didn’t brace myself. I let myself go and immersed myself deep into what turned out to be one of the best theatrical experiences that I have ever had. I came out of the theater with a spring in my step and even at this moment, as I write, I am still tap-dancing to ‘A Lovely Night’ in my mind.
It’s nothing short of an extraordinary feat to impact the audience and the industry so much as to inspire them to explore a whole new genre. While Damien Chazelle is making me read articles on best Hollywood musicals and Wikipedia pages of ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, I am sure a ton of new musicals are in the making in Hollywood. When some people disregard ‘La La Land’ as something too light and powerless, I want to remind them of how big of an impact it has made on both the audience and industry and undoubtedly Damien Chazelle gets most of the credit for that.
After watching ‘La La Land’ a couple more times in theater, one fine day I watched ‘Whiplash’ (Yes, I am guilty of the crime of not watching ‘Whiplash’ in the past two years). While ‘La La Land’ sang and danced and transported me to another world altogether ‘Whiplash’ was inspiring and electrifying. There could be a factor of confirmation bias. But, there’s a limit for that, right? Compared to a whole industry that shamelessly rely on CGI overload, 3D and other visual effects to merely try to entice the audience, the adrenaline rush that Chazelle seemingly effortlessly induced in the audience through his impeccably co-ordinated camera movements, music and lighting in ‘Whiplash’ is one hell of an achievement. Considering how exciting the film was to me – a music dummy- I can’t possibly imagine how someone who can personally relate to the situation might have felt. I was so pumped after watching the climax of ‘Whiplash’ that I wanted to immediately something productive. I was asking myself :What do I do? What do I do? I have to do something great now. That is probably the biggest accomplishment as a filmmaker: Being able to intoxicate the audience through one’s craft alone!
One thing that’s transparently common to both of these films is the abundance of passion. Both ‘La la land’ and ‘Whiplash’ oozes passion. Chazelle obsessively compulsively leaves his fingerprints in every single frame! Granted, these two movies deal with music, jazz and all those things that Chazelle himself is deeply accustomed to and is personally attached to. He might not be versatile enough to bring in that level of intensity and enthusiasm always. But, that’s not a question for now. We will find out when he show us the upcoming Neil Armstrong biopic ‘First Man’. Speaking of passion, I am amazed by his ability to set the mood of the film and keep it consistent throughout! Moreover, every single aspect of the movie contributes to that. The choreography, music and even the camera movements are in perfect sync. We can feel the camera twirling around and dancing along with the dancers in ‘Someone in the Crowd’ and how it moves around gracefully to the beats of drums in ‘Whiplash’. And, no, it’s not just the cinematographer who gets the credit. I could virtually see Damien Chazelle guiding the camera from behind.
A considerable “issue” with both of his films are the lack of complex characters and story-lines. Personally, it doesn’t matter to me at all. But, generally speaking, that’s one area that we never got to see him excel at. Interestingly, he never let us judge him based on that. Be it ‘La la land’ or be it ‘Whiplash’, he hypnotizes the audience from frame number one, keeps them in that state until the spectacular climax sequence and then we go home right after he snaps his fingers and say “ Directed by Damien Chazelle”. Once we leave the theater, we forget about the lack of story-line or whatever issues we had with the writing and then start mulling over the glorious ending that we just saw. Let’s face it, ‘The Epilogue’ and the subsequent bittersweet ending of ‘La La Land’ and Andrew Neiman’s final performance in ‘Whiplash’ are unarguably the best sequences in the respective films. Nevertheless, Chazelle is yet to prove his mettle in handling deep story-lines and complex characters.
Personally, when watching a movie, what matters the most to me is how it makes me feel. I couldn’t care less about the technical brilliance. Yes, I might babble a lot on how great or horrible various technical aspects of a movie are, while being analytical. But, at the end of the day, everything comes down to how a film impacts you and more importantly how the overall cinematic experience is. Two years ago, when the utterly simple and exceptionally intimate ‘Boyhood’ lost to the technically superior ‘Birdman’, that’s why I mourned for weeks. It’s a similar heart vs brain scenario tonight. The political atmosphere and the general gloominess in the present world has certainly contributed a lot to the popularity of ‘La La Land’. But, it is a genuinely beautiful picture. It is also important to remember that, even after being rejected and shelved for years, Chazelle’s love and drive for cinema is one of the major reasons why it ever got made. When people rave about how powerful, deep, brilliant and politically relevant ‘Moonlight’ is (I totally agree with them, by the way) I am unabashedly rallying behind ‘La La Land’ for the aforementioned reasons. It isn’t the chemistry between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling or Justin Hurwitz’s hummable music or Linus Sandgren’s cinematography that I fell in love with. It’s the expertise and the palpable fervor of the person who is holding the invisible thread that seamlessly connected all those gorgeous aspects, that I am in love with. So, tonight, when this 32 year old man is standing on the stage in Dolby theater with that totally deserving golden statuette for Best Director , breaking an 85 years old record by becoming the youngest recipient of the directorial prize, I am raising my glass to all those fools who dream and in particular to the inimitable dreamer that Damien Chazelle is.
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