What La La Land tells us about Abu Dhabi

Deborah Williams tells us what it takes to develop a thriving arts community

A great atmosphere  surrounded the opening of Warehouse421 last year. Mona Al Marzooqi/ The National
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After I saw La La Land, I practically twirled my way out of the cinema, much to my husband’s chagrin. I shuffle-ball-changed while I was making dinner, and executed some lovely arabesques while making the bed. The next day, stuck in traffic on Airport Road, I had fantasies of starting a flash mob that would break into a spontaneous ballet across the bonnets of the cars.

Wouldn’t life be better if it were a musical? Think how much fun it would be if we could lope along snapping our fingers like cast members from West Side Story, or sashay through a sandstorm like Gene Kelly through the rain, in Singin’ in the Rain, or if those dull work meetings occasionally became rollicking Bollywood ensemble pieces?

As always with a successful film, there have been criticisms. Some have pointed out that Ryan Gosling’s character is a bit of a “mansplainer”, constantly instructing Emma Stone’s about the finer points of music and romance. Others have asked why a white guy (Gosling) is portrayed as the saviour of jazz, a form inextricably connected to the history of African-Americans. And others have observed that neither Gosling nor Stone have great singing voices. I liked that they weren’t expert singers, however, because it made it seem more real, as if they were ordinary (albeit beautiful) people who occasionally burst into song.

Seb, the aspiring jazz pianist played by Gosling, wants to open a jazz club because he thinks that people will learn to love jazz if they can see the musicians improvising and responding to one another in real time. By the conclusion of the movie, Seb has renovated a dilapidated old club and filled it with musicians – as well as with paying customers, who seem to be enjoying the music.

The movie pays homage to the American musicals of the mid-20th century, but I got another message, as well: the need for cities to make sure that the arts become an integral part of their urban fabric. Dilapidated buildings lead to dilapidated neighbourhoods, which aren’t necessarily improved by just knocking down the old structures. When Seb revitalises the old club, the neighbourhood perks up too. I sometimes imagine that Damien Chazelle, the director, has read Richard Florida’s influential book, The Rise of the Creative Class, in which Florida posits that successful 21st century cities will be those that help the arts and innovation to thrive.

It may seem like a leap to go from La La Land to Abu Dhabi, but think about the great atmosphere that surrounded the opening of Warehouse421 last year, with the funky “pop-up” shops featuring the work of local artists and artisans. People from the entire Abu Dhabi community were there, mingling and exploring, and taking in the scene – it would’ve been a great moment for a song-and-dance extravaganza.

There is a new exhibit at the gallery now, and the night I was there, the place was packed with people, but when they walked out of the gallery, they didn’t have anywhere to go. I had hoped that the entire area would have become a permanent arts enclave, where one night you’d hear an evening of songs based on those of the pearl fishermen, staged near the old dhows, and the next night you’d come to listen to an open-air reading of Nabati poetry in the plaza by the gallery. When events of this sort happen at New York University Abu Dhabi, the community turns out in droves, as if they are eager for the sense of connection that the arts can provide.

At night, as you leave Warehouse421 and drive through Mina Zayed, you can catch a glimpse of the Louvre’s roof, a starry curve that heralds the arrival of another art-related endeavour. I love the gleam of that roof and although I am eager to see what treasures will be housed beneath it, I am more interested in what impact the museum will have on the city’s cultural scene. Will only tourists frequent those pristine galleries, or will the museum be like Seb’s jazz club, revitalising and educating an entire neighbourhood?

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi