In Defence of La La Land

La La Land has been the most talked about film for quite a while and following the initial buzz, it has become increasingly fashionable to slate. Winner of a record number of Golden Globes and nominated for a joint-record 14 Academy Awards, Damien Chazelle’s musically-driven hit has been highly successful, both critically and commercially. In a media climate nourished by controversy I’m mainly writing this because I’m bored of reading over-exaggerated and frankly annoying criticism of La La Land as a mediocre, “racist” and even “homophobic” work born out of white supremacist nostalgia.

It simply is not.

Image: Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

Don’t believe the hype

It’s understandable that for some, expectations might not have been met by Chazelle’s film. Admittedly, it’s hard to go into the movie without expecting the world following the obscene level of hype that La La Land has been receiving. I’m not a film critic and will not attempt to critically analyse Damien Chazelle’s use of Cinemascope or celebrate his nod to the legends of the stage and jazz musicians that I’m not going to pretend to have listened to before, but I know enough about the difference between a good, bad and excellent film to argue that La La Land falls comfortably into the latter. This is hardly a radical stance given the recognition it has and will inevitably continue to receive as we approach the glitz of the Oscars.

However, in the face of its recent critics, I’d rather argue that it’s an extremely well-written love letter to the magic of cinema that successfully marries the modern epithet of compromise in order to pursue a career with nostalgia for an ideal. Its ending defies both Hollywood and Musical generic tradition (if we are to class it as a musical) and providing the film with a subtle closure that is both dissatisfying and fitting.

It’s hard to argue that La La Land is not overhyped though much in the same was as Lionel Messi is probably overrated and that Girl on the Train was definitely overread (though in the case of the latter it actually is pretty crap). My point is that we love exaggerating — we live for it. The media we consume is forced to exaggerate in order to attract our much-assaulted attention and when La La Land is dropped into a ‘greatest-film-of-a-generation’ sort of conversation it is immediately exposed as something to pick apart. The way I’d rather look at La La Land is for what I feel it was made to be: a wonderful two-hour homage to the senses that is both heartwarming and sad and one that encourages a reflection of our own individual relationships with ambition, romance and reality.

Bad film or bad musical?

The second criticism and probably the reason for which many wouldn’t want to go and see Chazelle’s film is that it is a musical and musicals always polarise. The main criticism in this respect is that it is a weak musical, amateurish and sonically-uninspiring. This criticism is not unfounded. Again, to say I’m an expert or even casual fan of musicals would be a lie. I like some, don’t like others and don’t really know why I like some and don’t like others. I think however, that La La Land shouldn’t really be considered a ‘musical’ certainly not in the traditional sense. For me, it is instead a film within which music exists and is integral to the quality of its overall aesthetic. The film could exist without the music, but would be a skeleton of what La La Land as a finished product is.

This brings me onto a technical criticism of the musical and choreographic aspect of the film, often and understandably focused on Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Seb.

“When he croons a love song, he’s so flat and out of tune it made me wince. His dancing is better but rudimentary, which is surprising considering his early years in the Mickey Mouse Club. Together their charisma wouldn’t fill a demitasse.”
Rex Reed, Observer

I think largely, though overly-condemning, the criticism of the vocal and dancing ability of both Gosling and (to a lesser extent on the singing front) Emma Stone is fair, but only when compared to something like Singing in the Rain.

To focus on (the limits of) the protagonists’ ability to sing and dance is to miss the point of La La Land. Particularly in the case of Gosling’s character Seb, his character is presented throughout as far from the finished product. His flaws are crucial to his character. Seb is a guy largely defined by compromise and a noble but flawed execution of his dream to revive jazz traditionalism. If Gosling’s character were portrayed by a Fred Astaire whose…

“legendary “Dancing in the Dark” number in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bandwagon — a classic that is superior in every way”

…as argued again by Rex Reed, (that critic who hates the film) I personally would have been able to relate far less to the conflicted Sebastian. A flawlessness of choreography for example in the post-party scene in the early stages of Mia and Seb’s relationship would render their prospective relationship far less believable and the success of their lead roles is maybe defined by a respective human representation of their characters. Gosling, perennial man for the millennial, holds both the dreamboat quality and guy-you-wanna-be syndrome but La La Land’s extraordinary feel and magical weight is somehow balanced out by both Gosling and Stone’s believability as two relatively ordinary, relatable individuals trying to realise an ambition in a frustrating and confusing world. La La Land is a film about the irresolvable dichotomy between reality and the ideal and both Gosling, Stone and their (sort-of) ordinary characters are integral to this.

Mediocre songs

Now the songs have also heard extensive criticism, both critically and from others who have gone to see the film.

“Second-rate throwaways provided by the music and lyrics of pop songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.”

(Rex again)

I’m not sure that any one song on the entire soundtrack is faultless or iconic but as a collective (see the 15 song Spotify playlist) they coherently evoke the film’s visual richness. The City of Stars sequence that features Seb on a pier, alone with the ocean and night sky is genuinely pretty beautiful. City of Stars itself, the film’s seminal and Oscar-winning (probably) tune in the Best Original Song category is nothing overtly amazing. It doesn’t take your breath away and is re-used throughout the film as a duet, instrumental and Gosling solo. That said, in each case the songs are successful in evoking precisely the perfect mood for the scene. Seb’s reflective rendition on the pier develops his character as someone who is comfortable alone perhaps with a slight resignation to eventual isolation and the ‘open-my-own-bar-that-just-plays-old-jazz’ dream which itself is the dream of a guy born to the wrong decade but stubborn enough to try and make it work. He’s the alienated-artist, the loner and City of Stars on the pier is his character’s consciousness of this. The lyrics are honest, human and though entrenched in a romantic context, far from gushy.

Why is the film about some white guy sent to save jazz?

This leads me onto the third main criticism of the film which is centred around Seb’s relationship with jazz and in turn that relationship as indicative of the film’s (white) arrogance towards musical genre.
This is perhaps the most convincing argument produced by the La La Land’s haters.

“Hollywood gave us three beautiful, critically acclaimed films about black characters, Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures. Some may ask, shouldn’t Hollywood recognise one of them, instead of a movie about a white guy who wants to save jazz?”
Noah Gittell The Guardian

It is a very valid point — certainly when we look at La La Land in the context of the Oscars.

But I’m not going to. It’s a fair point and I’d agree that Best Picture or whatever well-dressed award should go to a more ‘important’ film whatever that means — Hidden Figures, Fences, Moonlight are the obvious choices.

For me the criticism is most valuable when looking at La La Land in the context of jazz as inextricably linked to black history. Seb in some ways emerges as the white superhero attempting to defend an aspect of African-American culture. In this respect, why choose a white lead, itself a dangerous move in a film described as “for and largely about white people”?
It is a very real question, especially in light of the injustice of the Grammy’s and Beyoncé’s unforgiveable snub in place of Adele (who is great but her album belongs to a different galaxy to Lemonade) and some have drawn comparisons between the film’s nostalgia to current politics:

“There lies a profound irony in liberal white folks heading to La La Land to repair after a political season overflowing with the nostalgia of white supremacy.”
Geoff Nelson, Paste Magazine

I just feel that politicising La La Land would be like criticising Goodfellas for potentially upsetting children or arguing that Lord of the Rings isn’t realistic enough. Couple of bad analogies but La La Land, in my opinion, has no socio-political agenda so why force it into one, much in the same as Martin Scorsese’s film belongs exclusively to a grown-up universe and would be unfairly drawn into an argument about protecting kids from violence. If La La Land and its cast/production team/whatever wins every award ever made this year ahead of films such as Hidden Figures then the argument that more black actors and actresses should be credited becomes a very fair one. I still don’t think Chazelle’s film should be criticised from this perspective — that’s more the fault of the awards themselves.

I also think that Seb’s valuation and elevation of his black jazz heroes to the status he gives them provides a (patronising at worst) tribute to the genre of jazz and its socio-historic coordinates and will further introduce the genre to a new generation. Does Seb not elevate his heroes so far above himself (even worships a stool) so as to dedicate a life to creating a shrine to their music, represented by the bar? Is his sacrifice of the pursuit of love not in order to lead a life propagating the artistic message of a set of explicitly black heroes? A black lead would have been undoubtedly preferable, but I think La La Land is at worst clumsy in picking a white lead. Gosling got the role due to his friendship and ongoing collaboration with Chazelle, not because Chazelle specifically sought a white actor. Completely understand if you disagree with this and my argument is definitely imperfect but it is against the following genre of criticism by the guy called Nelson:

“Chazelle’s film might be subtitled Make Hollywood Great Again.”

I reckon La La Land fits just fine.

Artistic arrogance

Similarly, others accuse Damien Chazelle of “ideological snobbery,” most notably in the scene at a party when Mia crushingly provides a mockery of A Flock of Seagulls’ hit ‘I Ran’ (had to Google the band don’t worry). This scene essentially presents the song as emblematic of artistic vacuity, or the foil to what Seb believes in. In other words the film thinks the song is crap and proceeds to ruthlessly ridicule it. Kind of agree with those who say that the film’s songs themselves have to be so unreal so as to defy any criticism themselves before condemning others in the film.

Then there’s commercially successful character played by John Legend who tries to ‘modernise’ jazz for the masses (grossly simplifying what his character represents). It feels as if we are slightly manipulated from the outset to root for Seb’s contrasting vision of ‘artistic purity’, whereby financial need gets in the way of this stance. This could very much be argued as a case of the film’s overall ideological snobbery; everyone has that friend who still believes ‘real music’ can only be made by four white guys who can ‘play instruments’ aka guitars and La La Land’s attitude towards music occasionally feels like the cinematic representation of this stance.

Furthermore, Seb’s prescriptive attitude to jazz is flawed — I again don’t have the wealth of jazz knowledge so read this article as to why it is http://www.vulture.com/2017/01/what-la-la-land-gets-wrong-about-todays-jazz.html. My argument is instead against those who assert the film’s representation of Seb’s representation of jazz as farcical is that crucially La La Land doesn’t endorse Seb’s dream. It’s only fault in this respect is that we are probably pushed to sympathise with his dream, but it doesn’t necessarily suggest that his dream of a recourse to traditionalism is correct.
John Legend’s character is a caricature of an artist who evolves to try and modernise an original concept and is perhaps too exaggerated in the sense that the jazz fusion track “Start a Fire” is deliberately (I hope) terrible — certainly from a lyrical perspective.

We could start a fire
Come on, let it burn baby
We could start a fire
Let the tables turn baby
We could start a fire

While Ken, John Legend’s character, and his band The Messengers, might be parodied by the film, their (commercial) success and popularity is highlighted in several scenes.

On the other hand La La Land allows Seb to translate his belief in ‘pure’ jazz into a dream and then make this dream a reality in the form of his own jazz club but the film never suggests that he is right in doing so. He ultimately doesn’t get the girl.

Other criticisms to address include the fact that La La Land is a male driven film about a female lead - mansplaining. Again this criticism is not unfounded. Mia as probable protagonist is arguably a witness to her own story as her dream is driven by Seb; he initially takes her to see Rebel Without a Cause, insists on driving her to her audition. That said, I do feel that in the film’s midriff during which the couple grow apart, Emma Stone’s character is presented as far more likeable and Seb’s as far more obnoxious. I’m not sure how this might counter the ‘mansplaining’ criticism but I don’t believe the film to overarchingly present either character as more or less integral to the realisation of the other’s dream. For this reason I don’t agree with an criticism that the film biases the male lead’s role in the film over that of the female or that the realisation of Mia’s ambitions was solely contingent on Seb. They are both equally as fundamental to the ending’s success. Any argument that the film is anti-gay (and there are some) I believe to be ridiculous. Outside of the leading couple, sexuality is not explored and there are neither explicitly heterosexual or homosexual couples presented.

Beauty in the compromise

“It’s conflict, it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting,”

Seb says to Mia when watching some jazz in some bar. This exchange sort of feels like the film’s manifesto on life itself. Both characters have internal, artist conflict from which compromise emerges but throughout the narrative is excited by hope and potential.

As one of the most critical reviews of the film suggests:

La La Land is a film for our time. With our self-nurturing, self-promotion, clicktivism, Twitterstorms, sexts and selfies, we are all narcissists now.”

It’s pretty accurate and La La Land doesn’t attempt to resolve it. It instead accepts and try to find beauty within the selfishness.

To quickly ruin the film, both lead characters ultimately choose themselves over love. But La La Land makes this sadness look beautiful. I’d also argue that this sacrifice is mutually fundamental to their respective realisations of their dreams and this is acknowledged, for me, in the final frame and the look they share.

The ending is neither happy nor unhappy but beautifully placed between the two. The look they share in the final frame both the compromise and the content acknowledgement of the reasons for why that compromise was made. Their imperfect final happiness is mutually-formed and mutually-incomplete.

Their dreams were never one ultimate goal. Their dreams evolved and adapted throughout the film, inextricable from setback and the inevitable compromise of life.

The film for me is rooted in the incompatibility of romantic escapism and creative accomplishment in life and the paradox of approaching your dreams with a necessary ruthlessness (also echoed in Whiplash). That is why I feel La La Land is so special. It reaches out and openly acknowledges its imperfections while maintaining a consistency of joy in a presentation of these conflicts. The ending is crucial to this and its ultimate (dependent on your reading of the final frame) acceptance of life’s imperfection. Much like in the quiet selfishness of both characters, the film’s romance emerges from the human, imperfect presentation of an escape into fantasy.

Chazelle will probably win Best Director and become one of the youngest to do so (maybe the youngest, I’m not going to look it up) and La La Land is widely expected to follow suit for Best Picture. This doesn’t really matter. I haven’t (yet) seen all of its competition but am confident in saying La La Land is reasonably incomparable from a stylistic perspective. Watching the film in the cinema was a reasonably powerful experience of both escapism and personal reflection, more so than with many other films I’ve seen of late and I’d imagine the film also achieved this with many others. Perhaps it didn’t, but if it did, then in doing so La La Land becomes a success in itself, regardless of any accolades it subsequently picks up.

Geoff Nelson asks at the very beginning of his critique:

“What does Damien Chazelle hope we see when we look back?”

I say — who cares. If the film succeeds in providing a wonderful visual and sonic escape on the part of the cinema-goer into a world of retro glamour and perhaps personal reflection then why does it matter if La La Land refuses to lose itself in an overarching ideology and allows us, as individuals, to extract from its richness of sound and colour, precisely what we want. Though definitely not a good way to approach life (especially at the moment), maybe it’d do us all some good to avoid politicising La La Land and allow ourselves to briefly become lost in the emotional and irrational.