La La Land Is Great Again
I saw La La Land on my birthday, and I thought it was very good.
I had been subtly warned off the film by my twitter feed before seeing it; it was too white, too straight, too cavalier with its use of jazz music to be a good movie in the Year of Our Lord 2016. It even fails the Bechedel test.
And then I saw it, and I thought it was great. Beautifully shot, earnestly sung, purely and deeply stylish. Gun to my head, Emma Stone is my favorite actress, and she is lovely, as she always is (nothing she does in La La Land moves my heart like the scene in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 when she and Andrew Garfield meet eyes as the “Song For Zula” by Phosphorescent starts to play, but that’s an unfairly high bar). John Legend wears a turtleneck and cranks out a very very good song that I think I may have listened to every day in the month of February.
Seb is hit or miss. His trip to Nevada is one of the most heartwarming romantic scenes I’ve seen on screen in a long time (maybe even since the scene in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 when Gwen Stacy and Peter Parker meet eyes as the “Song For Zula” by Phosphorescent starts to play), yet Ryan Gosling’s character is the lightning rod upon which La La Land’s detractors center their criticisms. “The movie where Ryan Gosling saves jazz music” is the caricature.
But Ryan Gosling does not save jazz music; John Legend saves jazz music, making something good and fun and new. Ryan Gosling fulfills his own little dream of what jazz music is, and I don’t care for it. His appreciation of the jazz of yore is well-placed and something he has every right to enjoy, but he doesn’t stay there. He wants to bring that kind of jazz back, over and above music being made and developed today, casting himself as a champion of back when things were good, not like this newfangled nonsense. He has a strong distaste for John Legend’s electronic and pop-influenced jazz music, despite the fact that that music is good and innovative and popular. He’s stuck in the past, idolizing Hoagie Carmichael’s stool, staring wistfully at a club that changed in a way he didn’t like. That’s not a cool thing. That’s a sad thing, whether his dream comes true or not. He is stubborn and stuck in the past and insensitive to the potential reprecussions of his dreams in the modern day.
If you see Seb as an avatar for director and writer Damien Chazelle, as well he may be, then of course La La Land is problematic, its themes are harmful and unfair. But that’s not what I saw in this movie. It is a celebration of a complex relationship between two people who love each other and love the dreams they’re following, and a painting of a joyful and innocent and simple Los Angeles, just like the good old days that neither Damien Chazelle or I were alive for. It’s a musical. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I really like the movie.
(Side note: there’s also the scene where Mia, Emma Stone’s character, is in an audition and declares something grand about what she won’t let stand in her classroom, then this old Pacific Islander-looking lady working the audition says “lady, you be trippin!” and Emma Stone looks at her really dramatically and says “No, Jamal. You be trippin.” That scene is perfect)
That was January 7 I saw it, and then February 26 were the Academy Awards, where La La Land tied the record for nominations and was a heavy favorite to win Best Picture. The intervening fifty-odd days were spent drawing cultural battle lines, and The Movie Where Ryan Gosling Saves Jazz was shunned by the liberal/ black/ city-based “culture makers” I tend to fill my twitter feed with, and Moonlight was our champion instead, every embodiment of what was good and right and real and worth talking about in 2017. We lost in November at the ballot box and we lost in Houston in overtime, and so we needed this one. La La Land didn’t quite disgust me, but I was no fan anymore.
The Oscars were not the proxy war they were anticipated to be, and for that I am thankful. Thing I will remember most from that memorable and confusing night was that it made me like La La Land again. The thing about being nominated for 14 Oscars is that there are clips highlighting 14 different aspects where La La Land excelled, and I ate those up Sunday night. Even more than that, I saw all kinds of movies I loved Sunday night. I love movies. I love watching them at home and in the theater and by myself and with other people. Movies are great, and I was embarrassed to remember Sunday night that liking movies isn’t a zero sum game; they can all be good.
Moonlight told a story Hollywood hadn’t told before, its script was better than any other, its acting was better than any other. It meant more to more people. Is Moonlight better than La La Land, or Manchester by the Sea, or Hell or High Water, or Arrival, or Captain America 3: Civil War? I think it is, and I love all those other movies. I think Moonlight deserved to win Best Picture. I’m glad it did.
More than that, though, I’m glad Moonlight’s win did its part to diffuse the myriad attacks on La La Land, because La La Land isn’t Donald Trump. La La Land isn’t the New England Patriots. Movies aren’t made to fight against each other, they are made to tell stories and to be enjoyed. La La Land is a movie we can enjoy.