Tuesday, 18 April 2017

What's Wrong with Working Alone? - Thoughts on "La La Land" and "The Lego Batman Movie"

La La Land has split opinions across the board. Its red-carpet recognition reflects the general consensus that it is well made: a 'passionate but also exquisitely controlled' piece of cinema, as Variety put it. On the other hand, it has taken a lot of flack for a variety of reasons - some would have liked to see people of colour in the leading roles, especially since jazz and its roots have such a crucial role in the film's emotional impetus. But there is one complaint I have seen pop up quite often: that the protagonists of Damien Chazelle's latest effort are wholly selfish, chasing their own dreams with no concern for their audience or even each other.

This is true, at least to some extent. Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who, despite frequent collaborations, is at his most creative and inspired when playing alone. Mia (Emma Stone) attends many failed film auditions, eventually deciding to put on a one-woman play, not caring how many people turn up or whether they like it. As the film progresses, the couple realise that they cannot continue their careers and their relationship; something has to give, and so they go their separate ways.

Put this way, it doesn't sound hugely inspiring. But I enjoyed La La Land immensely, and on some level I think these critics might be missing the point. Enter The Lego Batman Movie.

Marketed principally for children, this film has a much more obvious thematic arc - Batman is used to working alone, achieving safety for Gotham and notoriety for his sole protection of the city. As the story unfolds, he is challenged to accept others into his professional life (new police commissioner Barbara Gordon) and his personal life (the orphan Dick Grayson, also known as Robin).

For an hour and a half we laugh as Bruce Wayne struggles with these new additions to his world, ultimately overcoming his unshakable independence and learning that working alone is not always the solution.

While La La Land and The Lego Batman Movie are very different films, they do have their similarities. for a start, each can be viewed as nothing more than an advert for a multi-million dollar industry, whether it be North American films or Scandinavian building bricks. One gets comic payoff from genre-crossing and pop culture references, and the other is made entirely out of Lego.

But they are linked thematically as well: they both focus on the people and experiences that shape and change us. No, Mia and Sebastian don't have their happily ever after, but their time together has an impact. At his lowest point, Sebastian joins a band making commercial music that he disagrees with, and only Mia has the sense to remind him of what he truly wants - his own jazz club. Their argument at the centre of the film is unfair from both sides, but at its heart is a desire for each to make sure the other is truly happy.

By the same token: While Mia's friends claim she can only find success by happening upon a Hollywood bigwig at a Los Angeles party, it is Sebastian who gives her the confidence to use her own life as inspiration, and build a career for herself. The climactic song "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)" encapsulates these things, drawing on Mia's aunt's spontaneity for a toast to those unafraid to hold onto their dreams. Mia takes on the spirit of jazz - the confidence to improvise, live in the moment and do what comes naturally.

The idea of working alone is prominent in both of these films, but in my opinion it plays second fiddle to their most important message: be on the lookout for people and things that will challenge us, make us think differently, do things differently. As Aaron Sorkin wrote: "keep accepting more than one idea." In today's political and social environment, nothing is more important.

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