HOLLYWOOD—“La La Land” is one of the most acclaimed films of 2016. It has garnered a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score of 93 percent and a slew of award nominations. Its beautiful, flashy musical numbers are toe tappingly delightful as is its amazing leading lady Emma Stone. Colorful, fun, and old school it’s the perfect film for 2016, and I mean this in the worst possible way. It’s a film wrapped up in an obnoxious nostalgia for old Hollywood. What could have been one of the great cinematic musicals is sure to become one of the most puffed up, gold plated ventures to ever grace your times the Academy Awards got it wrong list.
The plot follows struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they chase their dreams and fall in love in a post card version of LA.
Emma Stone delivers a tremendous performance. Her singing was especially impressive. Ryan Gosling is a fine actor, but he could not keep up with Stone’s singing. This was surprising when one takes into account his memorable musical number in “Blue Valentine.” Stone really takes over the stage the way Hugh Jackman did in “Les Miserables.”
The beginning of the film is the best. The opening number, a splendid, energetic piece set on a freeway overpass with downtown in the background, left me hopeful that this would be one of the great movies about our city. As we progress, we find that it’s the LA of people who’ve never been here (or never left a narrow part of the Westside). Boilerplate locations like Griffith Observatory, the coastline, the Hollywood Hills old movie theatres, and studio lots are the majority of what we see.
I’ve lived here all my life and the only thing I really related to was the depictions of traffic and the freeways. To me this is the lazy, postcard version of Los Angeles. Where are the food trucks, carts, diners, fast food joints, and hole in the walls that we all know and love? K-Town, anything south of the 10 freeway, the Valley, and anything east of Downtown are nowhere to be seen. Yet another version of LA focused on the landmarks and stereotypical entertainment industry. Our protagonists might as well have walked under a sign that said “Welcome to (hipster) LA!”
Perhaps this could be said of many cities’ depiction in movies. New York, Paris, and Washington D.C. all have suffered similar fates. Should not we expect more of our artists? They should delve into the true character of a city from the perspective of the citizens who know it best. No one has said this better than documentarian Thom Andersen in his ponderous but thought provoking “Los Angeles Plays Itself.”
The failures of this film extend far beyond its lackluster portrayal of Los Angeles. Its almost laughable nostalgia, especially for old Hollywood, is tone deaf and pompous. We might ask Anna May Wong what she thought of the old Hollywood. I’m sure she wouldn’t venerate the systematic racism that kept her from ever reaching her true potential. Her story is one of many. With extremely rare exceptions one only had access to the halls of Hollywood power if one was white. The fact that we see here a movie with two white leads and a white director/writer yearning for a bygone time in cinema history has the bitter taste of white privilege.
The fact that the film’s one prominent black character, played by the fabulous John Legend, is the representation of change here is illustrative. He brings Sebastian into his more pop oriented band on the argument that Jazz must adapt to the modern age. The purist Sebastian is so off put by this as to be miserable. This is not me molehill mountaineering, but a beat you over the head symbolism that is the sentiment of the dregs of the internet dressed up and set to a snappy tune.
I often hear this bemoaning of the modern world. Flawed and still far off from meaningful racial justice as it might be (especially in the arts) it is hard to argue the old world was superior or equivalent. This film yearns for the days, whether it means to or not, where segregation was the norm, women were denied rights, and films for the most part ignored the social problems that plagued the country. It is the movie for those wishing to “Make America Great Again.” It asks us to opt for distraction instead of thought and engagement. I say no.
In a year where multiple films like “Moonlight,” “Lion,” and even “Hell or High Water” to an extent brought forward pressing social issues we are given a commercial here for the medicine of escapism. That this passes for great cinema when it shows such poor artistic vision is bemusing to say the least.
“Why do you say romantic like it’s a dirty word?” Sebastian says to Mia.
This quote is illustrative of the films blindness. A good filmmaker doesn’t have his head in the clouds while there is fire down below. “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Les Miserables” prove you can have fun, exciting, and challenging cinema. There is no excuse or justification for failure in this department.
Even the beautiful colors and great choreography can’t save this. For the most part because this ceases to be much of a musical in the middle and end. There are some songs sure, but the big, memorable numbers are in the begging. The melodramatic ode to dreamers at the end rings hollow from Mia with her six years of struggle. Its ode to love lost for success seems more approving than sorrowfully critical.
This is perfectly in line with writer/director Damien Chazelle’s other inexplicably overrated film “Whiplash.” There he seems to approve of horrendous abuse as a path to musical greatness. Here he seems to say you must give up on things like love on the way to stardom and career fulfillment. This sounds like a recipe for embittered ladder climbing and obsession than some kind of life affirming joy.
Chazelle is without a doubt one of the film industry’s most overrated directors. His constant focus on Jazz and its lack of popularity shows something of a weird obsession. He doesn’t even use it to discuss bigger issues for the most part, but ruminates on the art form and its modern troubles more than anything else.
Sebastian constantly tells Mia not to care what people think. I feel this is Chazelle at his worst. He seems to think art is something done for the enjoyment of the artist. Can you imagine if novelists thought this? We would have more journals than anything else, and they would all reek of an annoying solipsism. Art functions as a means of communication. It helps us think, examine ourselves, our world, critique society, and empathize with others. This film does none of this well, and as such is good only in so far as it stands as a memorial against aestheticism.
A drama with no insight has nothing to offer. Frankly, I’d rather see “Office Christmas Party” again as at least I could laugh. This is the kind of film that critics and discerning viewers need to be careful for, a turd wrapped in pretty colors. Let us hope the Academy has the sense to honor the year’s much better films. Hopefully Chazelle will gain a greater perspective on the world before his next film, and he will use it to provide us with something much more worth our time. Lest this comes to pass I fear the worst, and we’ll be left with another overrated, over awarded Woody Allen.