(NOTE: This piece contains spoilers for La La Land.)
Fandor’s Keyframe blog is usually a resource for great writing on film from a wide variety of viewpoints, and anyone who takes their cinephilia seriously should make it a regular read. That said, even the best have their worst moments. On December 27th, Keyframe published an essay by Nathan Smith entitled “About That George Michael Joke in LA LA LAND,” subtitled “And the matter of artistic seriousness.” If the title didn’t already give it away, the main thrust of Smith’s piece is that he was deeply offended by the use of George Michael’s name as a punchline at the end of an extended joke about 1980s pop music by one of the characters in the film. This is in addition to his insistence that the film traffics in “empty cynicism and flashy colors,” and its principal raison d’etre is “its fevered mission to #MakeMusicalsGreatAgain.”
It is difficult to overstate how embarrassingly wrongheaded this piece is. First and foremost, there is absolutely no chance the piece would have even been written — much less published on such a respected platform — had George Michael not tragically died a few weeks after La La Land hit theaters to widespread critical acclaim and enthusiasm from audiences. If it were not for this confluence of events, Smith would no doubt have never given the mention of Michael’s name in the film a second thought. It’s a hot take on a popular movie, and it ties in with a high-profile celebrity death, so it’s virtually guaranteed to pull in those clicks. But there’s probably a way this could have been approached thoughtfully. Whether Smith was unwilling or unable to do so is unclear.
The biggest problem with the piece is Smith’s inability to separate what characters say and what the film itself says. His fundamental point of contention is that the film has a “cynical attitude toward pop music,” presumably because lead character Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz musician who talks about almost nothing else. At the start of the film, Seb is steadfast in his refusal to compromise his dreams and ambitions. He is brought back to play Christmas songs in a restaurant where he had already previously been fired and is fired again the same night when he can’t keep himself from playing some “free jazz” (as the restaurant owner calls it). When we next see him, Seb is playing keyboard in an 80s cover band months later. He’s frustrated because it’s not the kind of music he wants to play, but now he can at least make it through a gig without ruining it for himself.
Eventually Seb takes up an old “friend” Keith (John Legend) to join his combo. At their first session, Seb is taken aback by some preprogrammed drums and synth noises played over their live performance. Afterward, Keith and Seb have a talk about how Keith sees people like Seb as the reason jazz is dying: hardline traditionalists rooted in the past, playing the same pieces their heroes did to an increasingly aging audience. The crucial part of this entire plotline that Smith seems to miss is that Legend is clearly the voice of reason here. And he completely misreads the pivotal scene when Mia (Emma Stone) attends the performance by Keith and Seb’s band The Messengers. She’s not “horrified by what she sees.” She’s shocked and obviously impressed by what a huge change their flashy, slick stage show is from Seb’s previous gigs playing cover bands and tiny bars packed with older jazz fans. She’s also overwhelmed by the response from the crowd, who go wild when Seb steps up for his synth solo.
During this scene, the audience is given a look at a significant evolution in Seb’s character. This is not “an ordinary if groovy neo-soul number, albeit with an absolutely unnecessary synth part, effortlessly layered on top by a bored-looking Seb.” The performance is shot and edited to underline how exciting and fun the song is, how every musician on the stage is doing something they love, and how thrilling it is to perform on a stage in front of a packed audience. Seb is not bored. He’s not playing whatever he wants to play whenever he wants to play, but he’s been given a space to perform in a band that allows him some measure of artistic freedom in addition to financial security and legitimate chance at fame. He’s not frustrated and gritting his teeth playing the simplistic keyboard lines of “I Ran” at pool parties any more. He’s not doing exactly what he wants, but he’s getting there. Seb starts out the film totally self-confident and unbending in the principles that prevent him from seeing success as a process. By the epilogue, he has paid his dues and garnered his audience playing with Keith’s band, allowing him to open the club that is his dream. Significantly, he finally does this with neither the location nor the awful name he steadfastly refused to budge on at the start of the film.
Asserting that La La Land has an “uncomfortable relationship” with pop music while acknowledging the presence in the cast of pop star John Legend and the fact that the film takes the form of “the cinematic equivalent of pop music” is flatly ridiculous. In addition to John Legend’s contributions to “Start a Fire,” the songs in the film were written by writer/director Damien Chazelle’s frequent collaborator Justin Hurwitz with lyrics by Pasek and Paul, musical theater artists whose work has included original songs written for the TV series Smash. Mandy Moore, the film’s choreographer, is probably best known for her work on Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, where she worked with dancers and other choreographers who would go on to work on the Step Up and Magic Mike movies. Chazelle built La La Land from the ground up as a piece of popular entertainment. In the opening scene of the film, the camera dollies past cars full of people listening to all different types of music. Mia learns to enjoy the jazz Seb listens to obsessively, but she also likes the pop music he plays with The Messengers. We hear snatches of different styles of music in the background of scenes throughout the film. Music drives the lives of the people who live in this world, and the film is a celebration of that. The only hint anywhere of any “condescension toward popular entertainment” in La La Land is Seb’s character at his most intractably traditionalist.
Which brings us back to Smith’s essay. Mia calling Seb “George Michael” is not a joke on George Michael, it’s on the self-importance that Seb uses to distance himself from and feel superior to other people. By the end of the film, Seb has become successful and earned some measure of happiness by letting go of that self-importance. Seb’s unwillingness to compromise on anything is depicted as immature and self-defeating; only when he is able to move past that is he able to realize his dreams. Mia becomes a movie star, which she sees as the pinnacle of success as an actor. Both characters finally owe the fulfillment of their dreams to popular entertainment. This is hardly the condemnation of popular entertainment Smith seems to think it is.
All of this would merit little more than an exasperated sigh at the piece’s ghoulish opportunism, but what makes Fandor’s publishing of the article truly dumbfounding is Smith’s outrageous assertion that Hollywood doesn’t make as many musicals as they did before the 1960s because “The resources simply don’t exist for a musical renaissance.” The traditional Hollywood musical began to fade in popularity throughout the 1960s as the interests of wider audiences began to drift away from familiar American studio fare. A useful point of reference here is Gene Kelly’s Hello, Dolly! The film was a lavishly mounted, hugely expensive musical that seemed completely out of touch with the world in which it was released. As Lorraine LoBianco wrote in a piece about the film for TCM: “With the Vietnam War raging and the hippie counter-culture influencing entertainment, Hello, Dolly! could not hope to make a profit despite being a well-produced and prestigious musical entertainment.” For some perspective, it was released over a year after Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and released the same year as John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. Audiences were looking for more challenging and sophisticated films, and both independent filmmakers and the major studios obliged.
That’s not to say that the musical disappeared entirely, of course, but the days when a musical with big name stars was guaranteed to be a box office hit were all but over. In the 1970s, Disney’s family films continued to use the musical as a template and the studios continued to produce adaptations of popular stage productions like Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). Rock musicals like Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Tommy (1975) kept the style alive with uneven financial success, and the studios still had occasional musically-oriented box office hits such as A Star Is Born (1976) and Grease (1978). In the 1980s the musical became associated with high-profile flops: the rare successes like Fame (1980) and Annie (1982) were far outweighed by box-office fiascoes such as Popeye (1980), Xanadu (1980), Pennies from Heaven (1981), One from the Heart (1982), A Chorus Line (1985), and Under the Cherry Moon (1986). By the 1990s, the musical was almost exclusively represented by children’s films in major American studio releases.
20th Century Fox’s release of Moulin Rouge! in 2001 was the biggest musical production in over a decade, and the film was successful enough to prompt other studios to take a chance on the form again. Chicago followed in 2002 and was a major hit, but since then musicals have hardly been sure-fire box office gold. There have been occasional breakout hits like Mamma Mia! (2008), Les Misérables (2012), and Pitch Perfect (2012). But these hits have again been outnumbered and largely overshadowed in the public consciousness by noteworthy box office underperformers like Idlewild (2006), Across the Universe (2007), Burlesque (2010), Jersey Boys (2014), and Jem and the Holograms (2015). Major studio resources have increasingly been funneled toward fewer big-budget “tentpole” films, and those have been dominated over the last decade by comic book adaptations and other big-budget sci-fi/action franchises. Hollywood certainly does not suffer from an “inability to produce musicals on a large scale.” There is no “public rejection of the genre.” There is simply not as much of a perceived demand for musicals as there needs to be to justify the studios’ efforts. The resources and money are there, but the audience response to musicals is wildly unpredictable. To the studios with their eye firmly on the bottom line, big-budget musicals are rarely a bet safe enough to gamble the money and time required to make them.
The state of online film criticism is fairly dire, with countless sites vying desperately for clicks and ad revenue and a relatively small number actually trying to get thoughtful, interesting writing out there. The problem with Keyframe publishing Smith’s piece is not that his viewpoint is not going to be shared by others. The entire point of sites like Keyframe is to get people excited about talking and thinking about cinema, and bringing up major points of contention regarding well-known films in wide release is a good way to do that. The problem with this particular piece is the fact that Keyframe is a large platform for cinephiles looking for serious, intelligent writing. “About That George Michael Joke in La La Land” is naked faux-outrage hot take clickbait, but worse than that is how it displays little grasp on film history and the state of cinema today. Suggesting that Hollywood doesn’t make more musicals because they just don’t have enough money to spend making movies these days is hilariously off the mark. This supposed insight would be a lot easier to take if it wasn’t part of a piece supposedly written as a defense of a recently deceased celebrity and pop music that speaks condescendingly about a particular piece of popular entertainment itself.