Tag Archives: Damien Chazelle

Here’s to the Fools Who Dream

Esperanza Spalding /Wikimedia.org

This is a good time to ponder the fates of younger Americans in every American city and town who hope to find a lifeline to the arts.

In a poignant moment in Damien Chazelle’s hit film La La Land (2016) a young actress tries to fathom why she goes on after endless rounds of demeaning auditions.  Ready to give up, she reluctantly agrees to go to a hopeful callback, where the casting director asks her to tell a story rather than read a set script.  And so Mia recounts the experiences of her Aunt in Paris, chasing her dream to be an artist and make some questionable choices “all over again.”  Mia is talking about herself as much as her relative when she offers a quiet toast to those who can go on, singing “Here’s to the fools who dream.”  She’s in the same uncertain state of suspension as her jazz pianist lover, and thousands of other young Americans seeking a foothold in the arts.

We get it because most of us can remember what it was like to seek perfect opportunities against very long odds.  It’s even more touching in the arts, since the dreamers who succeed still face uncertainties and crazy hours that would defeat most of us.  Those who have chosen these kinds of lives have exchanged security for the uncertain rewards of following their passions.

The stage struck performer running out of hope and money is an old story that Hollywood and Broadway love to retell. Think of the three versions of A Star is Born, (1934, 1954, 1976) or Singing in the Rain (1952), or the darker All About Eve (1950). Perhaps these are so durable because the experience is so universal, not to mention the awe we have for the kinds of pleasures that artists of all types can create. We are refreshed and renewed by what people among us can do on canvass,  on stage, on the screen and the transformation of musical notation into sonic magic.  Who could but want them to succeed?  And so we take the ride with them again and again.  Their dreams and talent seed our optimism about the future.

This is a good time to ponder the fates of younger Americans in every American town who hope to find a pathway to a lifetime in the arts.  It has never been harder to make a living as an artist, musician or actor. Dance companies and orchestras around the country struggle to close budget deficits. Problems of long-term financing have even hit stalwarts like the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Even so, the dreamers need our support.  I’ve heard parents express pride over the decision of one of their maturing children to follow a path into music, art, art history, philosophy or theater. And I’ve heard the disheartening responses of others who profess sympathy to those parents because of the supposed challenges that await.  Such bogus displays of compassion actually demonstrate how we can too easily give up on the ideals and optimism of the young.  When those kids successfully find their ways–and many do–the rewards are all the sweeter.

To be sure, audiences are more distracted and less inclined to pause long enough to sit in a theater seat or pay the price of a Broadway show.  But the larger problem looms in the deepening cesspool of American politics, with discussion in Congress of gutting modest levels of federal arts funding. The small but important budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are all at risk. They represent less than one half of one percent of the federal budget, but they are always targets for cuts from fiscal conservatives.

The perfect responses to many states of mind often come into focus through narratives we witness in performance.

Of course the real fool’s errand is to cut the nation’s youth off from the arts.  The perfect responses to many states of mind often come into focus through narratives we witness in performance.  Most American Presidents have known this, showcasing American talent in many ways, including wonderful nights of East Room performances from that have ranged from Esperanza Spalding’s jazz to bluegrass music. Almost all have been broadcast on PBS.

It’s perhaps understandable that well-paid and self-satisfied policy-makers will decide what they can live without.  But it’s inexcusable to thoughtlessly take away the birthright of students who yearn to contribute to arts that are so eagerly consumed and cherished by the rest of us.

Turns out, Americans Love Opera

Vertigo Commons Wikimedia
                 Still from Vertigo, Commons Wikimedia

Grant me a rhetorician’s right to stretch the meaning of word about as much as clothing that seemed to fit better in the summer.  Music dramas have always been popular and show no sign in disappearing.

Attendance in the nation’s opera houses may be thinning a bit. But there can be no denying that Americans might surprise themselves to be reminded they often love opera as a form.  Grant me a rhetorician’s right to stretch the meaning of word about as much as favorite pieces of clothing that seemed to fit better in the summer.  Music dramas have always been popular and show no sign in disappearing.

I was reminded of this recently while watching the final hour of Steven Spielberg’s much-honored E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial (1982).  The last half is pretty much given over to John William’s rich score that soars as high as the  kids fleeing the feds on bicycles. The music leaves us breathless, not all that different from the second act conclusion of a Puccini opera. Williams voices most of the melodic highs with lots of strings, but keeps the traditional Hollywood trope of shimmering brass puncturing through.  Let’s face it:  E.T. is an opera on bikes.  And we’re the better for having it.

It turns out that most commercial films are scored with wall-to-wall music.  A lot is what composers call underscoring, meaning music meant to be heard in a mix of voices and ambient sound.  For example, the haunting Schwartz and Dietz ballad Something to Remember you By goes mostly unnoticed in a party scene of The Band Wagon (1953).  It deserved a better fate. We are sometimes not fully conscious of the great stuff that drifts past our consciousness.

I was amazed recently to see a new documentary on director Alfred Hitchcock, who carried on an extended discussion with French ‘new wave’ director François Truffaut in the nineteen sixties.  The book was later published as Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966).  In the documentary the two auteurs talked endlessly about lighting, shots and set ups, mostly in reference to Hitchcock’s landmark films.  And yet, strangely, they were unusually mute on the subject of music, even in what is often considered Hitchcock’s best film, Vertigo (1958).

No one can fault a director for being a visual person.  Even so, I think of Vertigo as an opera created as much by the composer Bernard Herrmann as by Hitchcock’s relatively static shots. The film’s is not much into verbal repartee. So it’s little wonder that a full scale screening of it these days may well be in a concert hall, with orchestras like the San Francisco Symphony accompanying a showing of a pristine print.  Interestingly, the music from Scene D’Amour, one of the many sequences featuring James Stewart lurking behind Kim Novak’s enigmatic character, has since shown up in films such as The Artist (below), the not-so-“silent” French film that won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2011.

Luckily we have the recent work of the young writer/director Damien Chazelle, who is carrying the tradition forward in his new award magnet, La La Land ( 2016). In a conversation in our offices last year Mr. Chazelle confirmed that he grew up watching old MGM musicals.  That seemed rare enough for a man born in the 1980s.  But only then did we learn how serious he was.  He mentioned that he needed to fly back to L.A. to deal with an 80-piece orchestra ready to lay down his new film’s music tracks. New directors are not usually packing scoring stages with whole symphony orchestras.  Chazelle was finishing La La Land partly as a homage to larger-than-life Technicolor classics like Singing in the Rain.

American operas can show up anywhere and be embraced by almost anyone. I remember myself as a nervous new husband trying to deal with a sometimes overbearing father in law. I hated the time we spent doing illegal “drag-fishing” in the beautiful waters off of northern California’s Point Reyes.  With beer and buckets we ventured forth in his too-small boat to snag some halibut. Yet I can also remember his reverie during rides back to the beach house in his beat up truck.  He loved listening to his 8-track recording of the music from Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon (1969).  It really wasn’t much of a surprise that the crusty former member of the California Highway Patrol had turned himself into a lover of horse a opera.