“La La Land” Lost
“La La Land,” with its star-studded cast directed by Damien Chazelle of “Whiplash” fame, is refreshingly unlike any Oscar nominee in recent memory: no one dies or has sex in the film, and the latter is hardly implied, which is a rare omission for a romantic comedy/drama. It opens with a charming scene of people stuck in traffic on one of Los Angeles’s congested highways joyously singing and dancing on and around their cars. They’re wearing brightly-colored, retro-styled clothing under a cloudless sky and the brilliant Southern California sun. The scene’s over-the-top jollity flies in the face of what we expect of an Oscar contender — in short, it’s campy.
Camp style and musical theater alike have long been beloved by and attributed to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community, and “La La Land” incorporates both of those elements without acknowledging queerness at all — an omission that comes off as glaring in a year when LGBTQ people and issues were more visible in the media than ever before.
Take the movie’s first true instance of magical realism. After Mia (Emma Stone) abandons a stuffy dinner with her boyfriend of one month, she meets Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) at an old movie theater for a showing of “Rebel Without a Cause.” Robbed of their first kiss by the theater’s house lights, the two go to an observatory, where they begin to float and dance among the stars. The sudden switch to the fantastical doesn’t seem incredibly out of place given the film’s whimsical, dreamy tone, but it does read as cheesy and campy. For many, the term “camp” conjures images of Bette Midler and famous drag queens. While “La La Land” has no such exaggeration of gender roles, it does have an outlandish exaggeration of cheerfulness, something most Academy Award contenders are lacking. Smiling Angelenos singing in unison through a traffic jam and a young couple quite literally dancing among the stars are in stark contrast to the reality of life in L.A.; so stark is that contrast, in fact, that it functions as a critique of its own saccharine vision of the city. The only thing less realistic than these scenes is the idea of a slice of L.A. rich with aspiring actors, musicians, and artists in which everyone is heterosexual. The use of elements of camp without its fundamental element, queerness, does a disservice to the style and to the LGBTQ community as a whole.
Many of Sebastian’s quirks could easily be taken for indicators of queerness: he dresses in dapper fashion, he’s a great tap dancer, and he bursts into (albeit lackluster) song throughout the film. When Sebastian runs into his high school friend Keith (John Legend) at his favorite jazz club, the conversation is awkward and tense, like one between exes. Later, in bed, Mia asks Sebastian who Keith is to him, and he gives a vague answer, the way one does when a new lover inquires about an old flame. I expected the relationship between the two men to be fleshed out more, but it hardly comes up again. The unaddressed homoerotic tension is confusing and a missed opportunity to pay homage to the community that perfected the style and genre that give “La La Land” its appeal.
“How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” asks Keith of Sebastian at their band practice. Not that “La La Land” necessarily set out to be radical — thin, white protagonists and romance preceded by antagonistic banter are traditional elements of American entertainment — but it’s a little unfortunate that the film as a whole didn’t bother to hold itself to the same standard to which it holds its own characters. “La La Land” will probably win a whole slew of Oscars, but it definitely lost out on an opportunity to make a meaningful statement.