There’s a reason why some actors/actresses decide to steer clear of living in Hollywood, it’s full of crazy people who have lost touch with reality. Out there to chase their dreams that may never happen. Taking a normal job, going to auditions, writing scripts, following any lead that could be their big break. It stinks of desperation and dreamers who have lost the plot, or are driven and won’t be pulled back into the world of the living, the sane with us who know to stay on the right side of the silver screen. Only the lucky few are picked, get the call and go over and make the big time. Then you have to apply the old saying “whatever goes up, must come down” tell that to Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) one of the victims of the introduction of sound. The screen didn’t get smaller, in fact its blown wide open by those early talkies as everyone began to rush to that “gimmick” with all they could, seeing actors old and new change in a matter of years. You can see the effect of progress crystallised in a few films, but none of created a victim of that progress as frightening as Billy Wilder in his chilling take on Hollywood with Sunset Boulevard (1950). Having been in tinsel town for almost 20 years he had he own fair share of stories to tell, but they would be true, and that would be unfair on those who have given him all he has made in this foreign country he calls home.
It’s been a few years since I first caught this striking film, a dark comment on an industry that Wilder was more than willing to use as material. My thoughts on the film have had time to mature and change over that time. I’ve taken in many, many more films, a small portion commenting on the industry that produces them. We’ve just seen a film briefly win Best Picture before being snapped away due to an admin error. Hollywood loves the praise itself, but sometimes the ego’s been stroked a little too often and a conscience for the better film to be honored props up, declare Moonlight (2016) the winner over La La Land (2016) which was a front-runner for what seems a year since it was first premiered.
However if we go back to 1950 it’s a very different time and the golden age is starting to crumble after the studio system was being broken down by both Washington and the stars who made the studios so powerful. The only real power was censorship, which was skirted by Wilder. American cinema was entering a new age of the psychological, the fear of the Soviets, the first decade of peace, after WWII was still uneasy with the war on communism being fought in Korea. With all this going on Hollywood is ripe for he picking.
If we go back to the dawn of sounds we see numerous careers being ended, the fear of rejection and uncertainty in an industry of replace and progression. Culminated here in Norma Desmond, one of the first film stars to be let go or forgotten, or as we learn simply too much to handle, one of the first diva’s. Of course the dark twist is that she’s played by Gloria Swanson one of those much forgotten once celebrated actors whose own fame had since faded. Was this a version of herself, a pastiche of the silent era stars, would the audience be able to tell the difference. A dastardly piece of casting, of course Swanson knew exactly what she was doing. A heightened version of what her generation could now be. The self-awareness she brought, the history which could still be hers if she hadn’t found another career, whilst also having a minor acting career was all but forgotten. The fact she carried on, shows how she adapted to the introduction of sound. Just where did she find the unhinged Desmond that is very much part of that desire to be famous, once the attention has gone, how does the individual adapt to life post-fame? Desmond is the ultimate forgotten star.
Add to that a version of Wilder and Charles Brackett who co wrote this film, their view of the system for an aspiring script-writer. Is Boulevard a culmination of their experiences, did the encounter a Greta Garbo or Mary Pickford who was lost in the transition now living in a delusion of grandeur in the Hollywood hills. The writer and the narrator here is Joe Gilles played by William Holden an actor of the new confident age of sound, two generations sharing the screen. Gilles the struggling writer is knee-deep in debt, he can’t get a script green-lit for the life of him, his cars threatened with repossession. When will he get a break? It’s only when he gets a flat during a car chase does he find a mansion that wouldn’t look out-of-place in Citizen Kane (1941). Shelter was the storm that is his collapsing world. On meeting Desmond a has-been, his life’s being turned on its head, both using each other to their own ends, nothing new there.
So who has the upper hand here? It starts out as Gilles who takes on Desmond overblown untamed screenplay meant for the silent screen rather than a contemporary audience, OK maybe the arty world might like it. A script that relied more on the eyes, the facial gestures rather than dialogue to progress the plot. Relying on titles of varying length instead. It’s Gilles’s task to adapt and tame this beast of a script, without upsetting the original writer’s ego. Of course this soon gets out of hand, the writer finds that he’s been moved in to the house now. His life is no longer his own, in a trap of gifts and love of an older woman who see’s him as her way back to the big or small screen – depend who perspective you look at it. He want to use her script for his next big film, can he make it work for both.
It’s a film ultimately of professional back stabbing, who can walkover who first and hardest and still prosper. We see from the beginning that it hadn’t worked out too well for someone who is hovering dead in the swimming pool. A classic trope of Film noir, start at the grizzly demise of someone and work backwards, just how did this guy end up in the pool, I don’t think he tripped? What we see in the course of the film is two figures hungry for fame eat away at each other. One with step in the door, whilst another is just a shadow. Littered with figures from a forgotten age of cinema, a nod to them and a reminder that they were still around, they just be playing cards had to carve out a life post fame.
Last it also works perfectly as a comment on an industry, Paramount Pictures included that released the film is ultimately a business that will pick up and drop the next big thing to make a few bucks. The kind of cynicism that Wilder is known for. It’s a method that still works to this day, one day your hot, then you make a flop and out you go NEXT!! That’s show-business for ya.
There’s a reason why Moonlight (2016) won last night at the Oscars, even after the result was fudged up by Faye Dunaway and her old pal Warren Beatty did their best during the biggest blunder of the ceremonies 89 year history. Even before the result was corrected on the stage that saw the award go to La La Land (2016) I knew in my heart that it should have gone to admittedly the stronger of the two films – Moonlight. I’d like to use this as my argument for why it should and rightly so have been awarded Best Picture.
At first I wasn’t really fussed by seeing the film, know it was something special. It took reading and listening reviews for me to change my mind and check it out. A 3 act film that follows one Black guy from child to manhood, not so different on the surface they have been urban films before, but none that tackle homosexuality and so sensitively too. A social urban film that doesn’t play up to the stereotypes of African-Americans for a white audiences. Its story is ultimately human which has allowed it to transcend the barrier of colour. The humanity in La La Land’s restricted within the confines of a couple who are striving for their own dreams. Far more selfish than most those in Moonlight. Maybe it’s that we follow Chiron played by three different actors allowing us to spend so much time with him, it’s far more intimate.
La La Land is essentially a love letter to Hollywood by the machine that produced it, a musical that loves musicals. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, however it feels constructed with the intent to win votes for last night. I know that’s not the case, with a release and campaign doing that job for the film. With Moonlight the love is for the a hard-won emotion that Chiron who begins his journey with us under 10 as Little (Alex R. Hibbert) a cute and shy kid who has far more on his mind than most kids. Picked on for being different, but why is he different, at his tender age he begins to look in on himself to consider he maybe gay. Supported ironically by drug lord come mentor Juan (Mahershala Ali) (who rightly won best supporting) who is the cause of Little’s mum Paula’s addiction. Herself played by a dazzling Naomie Harris who filmed her scenes in 3 days in between promotion for the latest Bond film.
You feel nothing but sympathy for Little’s struggle on the street, at school, at home and with his own identity. Finding strength in his young friend Kevin (Jaden Piner) who we follow also throughout Chiron’s life. All you want to do is reach into the screen and hug the little man who has so much to deal with and nowhere to turn. Juan is the only father figure in his life, who is not wanted by Paula as we later learn.
Moving onto high-school and we meet Black (Trevante Rhodes) the teenage Chiron whose grown slightly in confidence, yet still painfully shy. Still friends with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) who will play a pivotal role in Black’s sexuality and future. As we have seen before in film, high-schools harsh world for some, filled with social pressures to conform as you leave childhood to become adult. You really get a sense of the angst that has been building up before it explodes after a fight on the playground that pits friends against each other. It’s nothing short of being a painful watch for the audience. In a way you see it coming, all the pent-up rage being unleashed after a moment of tenderness’s matched with one of betrayal before violence follows.
The final act sees an incredible transformation for Chiron (Ashton Sanders) who is now a drug dealer, beefed up and wearing bling to suit the life he has fallen into. On the surface it gives him power and confidence on the streets, no one questions him, the fear he can incite into those below him. It takes a few minutes to realise this is the same guy who we saw only moments ago. We are also bang-up-to-date in terms of period. La La Land does have a character transformation with that clever and controversial twist. Here in Streets of Atlanta, Georgia you could say Chiron has come full circle, taking on the role of his once father figure who took him under his wing. Yet its all a facade that takes one phone call and two visits to his mother and Kevin.
The last third sees everything come to a close, making sense of what has just happened, he’s come so far yet has not developed emotionally to have a romantic relationship, too insecure, too damaged by his past and his position prevents him from being truly happy. Very different to Seb (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) who made personal sacrifices to fulfill the creative ambitions, their dreams come true at great cost to each other. In Miami and Georgia reality is against Chiron, his economic, family, social and sexual background are not in his favor. Its a much richer, human drama that wipes the floor with La La Land, which is a completely different film.
Now does this show a change in Oscar voting and ultimately American films, or is it simply a fluke that 3 Black films had prominent nominations in multiple catergories. For me, its a good start to see a much more varied mix of films to enjoy and celebrate, different stories to tell and share with audiences. It’s really too early to tell if this progress is here to stay or just simply lip service, lets hope this year sees more progress, more diversity whilst still exciting stories to
To put this film into perspective, the hype and buzz around La La Land (2016) which I caught last night at The Phoenix in Leicester, we decided to book ahead and eat before we went in to see the film, my first cinema outing of the year. My friends and family have grown towards this independent cinema in recent years because it’s a better atmosphere, different films that you wouldn’t get less than a mile away at the multiplex. Probably the busiest night at The Phoenix and we weren’t the only ones to say that. We had to queue for food, that’s before being told of the 40 minute wait for it to arrive. We had to sit on separate table for a time, yes it was that busy it was grab or share table. I can’t fault the staff, some of whom I know, which took it all their stride and carried on, it was just another night, but it wasn’t, this was next to possible Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) proportions, it was packed in that little two screen cinema that delivered the food just before the film was to begin, assured that we wouldn’t miss the film before the end of the adverts, which shows how confident they are at The Phoenix. In short I was impressed with how this big film on opening night was handled by my local independent. We had our dinner down and only missed a few minutes of adverts before going into a packed screening of one of the most uplifting films in a long time.
We begin in a traffic jam of one our L.A.’s busy highways, nothing unusual there until the camera stops on one of the drivers, whose already singing, the tones being set here in this first number, it’s both light carefree and uplifting, taking us away from the world for if only a 2 hours. The dancers are full of life and the Eastern sunshine, yes I’m comfortable, ready to be taken along for the journey. I also noticed an older couple, not so nimble on their feet, that didn’t stop them from also being part of this random event on the highway. We stay there for one quick scene where we meet aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) memorizing some lines for an audition, lost in her own little world, even as the traffic eases and drivers move on, she’s still there lost in the lines. Before being interrupted by Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who honks his horn, a motif he uses much like an instrument to alert her to his impatient. They meet only briefly from passing cars, it’s too early to say if they have chemistry or they will ever meet again.
I was sold this film as a musical about musicals, and a love letter to the genre I’m not so sure its the former, it does however celebrate the classic spirit of the genre, its light and carefree at times, whilst also very contemporary, one of the few films still shot in Hollywood, supporting their local economy, instead of shipping production to the U.K. with all the tax breaks. In the trailer the image of celebration and what comes images that reference An American in Paris (1951) (which I will get to later), gave me a slightly different impression of the film – that’s trailers for you. I gave up trying to find references to past films, which I was more successful with for The Artist (2011). Here I just sat back and soaked up the film.
Taking it as a love letter to the genre as these two dreamers who over the course of 5 seasons Winter to Winter meet, fall in love and pursue their dreams. They want to live the Hollywood dream. Jazz pianist Sebastian passion for the music blinds him to staying in a job for more than a few nights. A night at a bar where he was previously fired, has to stick to a set list of Christmas numbers before the need to go freestyle on the ivories compels him to let rip before he’s given the boot. Whilst Mia the barista aspiring actress has just been to the latest in a string of clichéd auditions, we’ve seen them all before, all treated with a light touch, as Mia takes them seriously Stone can see the funny side, probably drawing from her own past on the audition circuit. She’s the one we’re supposed to identify with, the dreamer, who takes every opportunity to get a step closer to living the Hollywood dream. She knows her world inside out, even pointing out the window from Casablanca (1942)
Whilst Sebastian has the drive, the passion but can’t get close to his dream because he has let go of what is important to support himself to get to fulfilling the dream. As his old friend Keith (John Legend) reminds him that he’s living in the past whilst he needs to look to the future. There’s a re-opened bar as a Samba-Tapas, not one or the other, a combination which offends the traditionalist Sebastian who knows Jazz like the back of his hand, he breathes the music, if only he could be supported by it
It’s not your standard boy meets girl in a musical, it’s by chance and handled with a light touch, Mia starts the ball rolling in Spring when we meet them again before their first number together. Both are not naturals to the all dancing singing routines but seem to have really taken to it well. They are no Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers who had a dynamic which can’t easily be replicated. Instead we have a youthful energy which collides with sexual energy exerted through innocent dance. La La Land doesn’t claim or aspire to be a classic MGM musical filmed on the back-lot. It’s more natural – as a musical can be, breaking out into a number. The two leads have a natural screen chemistry that allows us to move through Summer and Autumn with noticing the seasons have changed.
Reality hits them late on, as Sebastian is finding success, the principled Gene Kelly type who take an opportunity at the cost of his dreams, to be loved and adored is easier to come by. Whilst Mia is putting it all on the line to make her dreams a reality. Both dreamers in their own ways, both escapists, only one a realist when it matters. Leading me back to the only real homage that is to An American in Paris, I noticed weeks ago the minimalist design and the Parisian references, it could only mean they have reworked the ballet sequence, a 13 minute scene that melts time to a halt as you are taken into this romanticised world of the studio where dreams are created. We are told in a near dialogue free sequence what happened after the love affair, how we have reached this conclusion.
I can’t finish this review without touching on the music, some of which is throwaway, whilst other numbers have stayed with me. I guess repeat viewings and a growing love for the film, I will be buying a few tracks to listen at leisure. I also have to mention the sometimes jarring cinematography that sees the camera panning that blurs to the extreme until we stop at either Mia or Sebastian, It’s a style which when sitting at the front of the screen is too much, it can be forgiven slightly as I understand the intention of sweeping past/through the crowd. A small negative among a heap of positives that leave you feeling light and care-free.