Dir. Damien Chazelle
Screenplay. Damien Chazelle
“See you in the movies” quips Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) to Mia (Emma Stone) after both characters reveal and mock each other’s dreams at a poolside party in Los Angeles. This statement speaks not only to La La Land’s cine-literate aesthetic, as it bypasses landmarks and murals of Hollywood legend, but also our experience as movie-goers. Part of our escapist fantasy is to emerge from the darkened auditorium into the dull lights of the unwashed street (in my case, London) and still imagine you are in the movie, swept up by the drama, the visuals, the sound. In contrasting this mythic LA, a landscape of bustling film studios, intimate jazz clubs and fragile dreams, with the unglamorous, everyday lives of the two protagonists, director and writer Damien Chazelle takes this escapist fantasy and puts it upon the screen. For a moment, like Seb and Mia, we enter a world of stars, where our real, obtuse lives are elevated into the vibrancy and enchantment of bygone Hollywood musicals and the West Coast jazz scene. We get to be silhouetted by our own spotlight and are allowed that schmaltzy (American) Dream with those three ultimate qualities at its apex: Fame, Fortune, Romance. But I didn’t walk out of the cinema feeling like I was either in La La Land or lifted by it. Instead, I felt I had watched the fantasy play out from the distance of my cinema seat and all I could see was the utter vacuity of it. It could only be a film so disingenuous, so inevitably aggrandising of the industry and the myth that surrounds and sustains it, that could have garnered so many accolades.
The under-dog hopefuls, Seb and Mia, cope with morning traffic under the unforgiving Californian sun and the weight of LA’s cultural history bearing down upon them as they both try to ‘make it’. She is unconfident but quirky, longing to be an actress but working as an on-studio barista and sleeping under a mural of Ingrid Bergman. He is an aspiring musician, grouchy but (obviously) brilliant, obsessed with Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Miles Davis, trying to keep ‘Jazz alive’. Together they embark awkwardly but sweep romantically across (and even above, à la Sleeping Beauty) the cinematic city landscape. Will they achieve their ambitions and be able to stay together? Will they find that artistic success and committed relationships are compatible? If this sounds like a tourist advert for LA, that’s because La La Land is. Furthermore, Chazelle tries to have it both ways- on the one hand, the film wants to swim in that dreamy reminiscence, splattered with references to every American musical from the 1930s onwards, and on the other it tries to look askance at it all, to taint the romance with a modern cynicism. The film is written as conscious of its genre and antecedent filmography, but continually attempts to undercut it with more prosaic moments. When Mia first meets Seb, down at one of his unsuccessful Christmas’ gigs, she alone notices him (or his talents). She thinks he notices her too. But instead as he packs up and leaves, he pushes past her roughly and unapologetically. She’s visibly put out, though her upset feels more like a fictional heroine who’s just had the conventions of romantic musicals broken.
And yet, it is clear that La La Land is deeply invested in that same dream, cannot really bear to let it go. For all its finger-pointing at ‘tradition’ and its scoffing to suggest how vacuous this all is (at one point Seb declares that LA is a city ‘that worships everything and values nothing’) it never goes so far to actually undermine or challenge its allure. Indeed, where one of the final sequences is meant to encapsulate how the ‘Dream’ will never really be gained by those striving in LA, it indulges in the reassertion of that ‘Dream’ through the clear allusion that Seb and Mia are still our modern-day versions of Rick and Elsa. Their musical motif replayed after years of separation, the bar setting (‘Seb’s’), the heightened regret in their lost love are pastiched from Curtiz’s Casablanca. As such, even in this attempt to suggest cynically that such a relationship wouldn’t last, they still remain archetypes. Their love is secretly eternal and mythic in quality. La La Land might at times look subversive to the medium but more often than not it just ends up endorsing and advertising a false, privileged lifestyle invested in the desperate grasping for recognition and significance.
Stone and Gosling are 21st Century, hipster versions of Bogart and Bergman though they do their best to make the relationship believable through repartee and affability. It is hard under so much schmaltz and melodrama to always see this at times. Eventually, they feel reduced to ciphers for these notions about culture and artistry- he, the white saviour of jazz (which incredulously the film doesn’t view as problematic at all) and she an attempt to reclaim acting from its commercial exploitation by the execs. Terrible lines that are glibly directed at us also suspends our belief in these two. ’Don’t you think it’s too nostalgic?’ Mia complains of her writing at one point, “But that’s the point!” Seb counters enthusiastically, while I rolled my eyes at how overtly and pointlessly self-referential this was. Only one scene, an argument that starts innocuously but descends into an intense, bitter attack as their separate ambitions force them apart, really demonstrate Stone and Gosling’s abilities and makes you sit up. It is one of those moments that La La Land might threaten to transgress the subject matter, but very soon they’re back to the predictable, symbolic and lovey-dovey.
Even if you didn’t want to delve deeper into La La Land’s exploration of these themes, even if you just wanted to enjoy the musical elements, it’s quite underwhelming. None of the songs are memorable or affecting (it took me a couple of days before the quiet, languid ‘City of Stars’ theme returned to me) and no dance sequences particularly stand out here as Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain or Robbins and Wise’s West Side Story. Even the free jazz performed is extremely generic. The most memorable and potentially iconic sequence is, of course, the one emblazoned on the poster- fun, mischievous and well-choreographed that mixes the theatricality with the more down-to-earth, burgeoning romance. Yet even here it felt like it was trying too hard, as if forcing this moment to be ‘classic’, even with the valley panorama obscured by the odd tree and bush. It also still relies heavily on emulating sequences created by Kelly, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Despite the appearance of virtuosity; all the energy and careful choreography in those dance sequences; the aesthetically-pleasing mise en scene, it is all so lurid and soulless. To actually yield to this would be to confound yourself and allow your heart to flutter at its superficiality. And yet, considering the film’s pretension to ironise all of this, La La Land doesn’t allow you to just indulge.
So why the fascination, the sold-out performances, the Globes, the BAFTAs and the Oscars, where it has parred for the most nominations in awards history? Well, one reason I have already suggested is for us as the audience. Despite that our culture is awash in irony and cynicism and the film acknowledges this, it still comfortingly re-affirms that we can have our dreams; that ideological summit of American life and culture. What’s the problem with that you might ask? Well, because in the end La La Land is peddling the same narcissistic aspirations that nothing to do with artistic endeavour, integrity or potential. It has nothing to do with genuine relationships between committed adults. Another reason also occurs. As with Best Picture Award-Winners Hazanavicius’ The Artist and Iñárritu’s Birdman, Chazelle has created a love-letter to the American cultural mainstream- whether its Broadway or Hollywood. It speaks of them, to them and celebrates them, its critique mild and harmless when rendered through the protagonists’ same self-serving ambitions. In the end, they just really want to be a part of that LA myth- not to change but to preserve. Just forget about the white appropriation of jazz, the relegation of artists of colour to the background, its terror of innovation, while it once again retells (or should that be resells) an enduring fantasy about a most contradictory American city. This pseudo-introspection is more of the self-involved flattery that the establishment just loves to fawn over. I’m in little doubt that La La Land will win in its categories, especially for the Best Picture. Though for what little those award ceremonies are actually worth and considering the other nominees, it doesn’t deserve to.