I’ve talked about La La Land a lot recently. I think everyone has, at least within the sphere of internet movie criticism. It’s one of those movies that comes around every so often and lights the award season on fire. But of course, it has been divisive. There’s backlash and then there’s backlash to the backlash and I’ve found people getting legitimately angry about it. Is it good? Yeah it’s pretty good, which is something that I think most people can agree with on a film making standpoint. I have a lot of problems with the film, but from a production level, a lot of it is really well done, and the ending is pretty spectacularly.
The main problem I have with the film is all about context. The ending is very good on it’s own, but honestly doesn’t work very well in context with the rest of the film. To explain what I mean about that, I’d like to refer to another film, Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical classic, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The story of this film is pretty similar to La La Land’s second half. It’s about a young woman (the brilliant Catherine Deneuve, doing a lifelong cosplay as the woman of my dreams) whose young romantic lover goes away to war with the promise that they’ll wait for each other. Of course, this all deteriorates and ends in a very similar way to La La Land. The two meeting at the end is sad and wistful and it makes sense because we know these characters. We’ve seen them together but we’ve also seen them apart. We understand why it is their relationship has dissolved. So when they meet again after all that time, it really feels like something has been lost, but we understand why it had to happen and that’s sad too. They’ve moved on and the love that once brought them close together now keeps them apart. She asks him if he wants to go outside and meet their daughter, but he knows he can’t, because that’s a part of their lives that has ended. There’s some things in life that can only go one way and once it’s gone, there’s nothing to back to.
Compare that to the ending of La La Land. They kind of break up but then he helps her get that one last audition to follow her dream. They’re being sweet and quirky to each other which is the same as they’ve been the entire movie so it would be easy to assume that they’re still together. But then we have a five year timeskip and everything is different. I guess they broke up? There’s no connective tissue here. Who is her husband? We don’t know anything about him. They have a child and I guess she’s happy with him but who knows, really. You can fill in the blanks here but that doesn’t make me feel it. You can’t make me care about the unnamed husband because we’re never given a reason to. So the trouble for me is that you can’t make me care about something being lost if I don’t understand how it is we got where we are. It just leads to me awkwards wondering why they aren’t still together.
All of this really narrows down the real issue that I have with this film. It’s not the romanticism, because we sure as hell need that sometimes, and it’s not the escapism because we sure as hell need that right now. It’s the fact that I don’t really care about the characters and what it is they’re doing. Who are these people other than spunky youths who want to follow their dreams? It makes sense to me that a film about nostalgia would end with the two characters being nostalgic for each other and the past they had together. I just wished it built up to it better.
The other thing that pains me about this film is some of the music. The piano theme that is played throughout is fine, but the old school hollywood songs are kind of unbearable. It’s strange to me that this movie was nominated for best sound mixing when the the first two songs are insufferably loud and overbearing, the instrumentation drowning out whatever the characters are trying to say. I actually thought something was wrong with the sound in the screening I went to, so I went home and had a listen to the soundtrack and it was exactly the same. Songs in musicals are a way for the characters to express things that they couldn’t otherwise express but that’s pretty hard if I can’t hear what they’re saying, and the camera is flying around in a way that is very impressive but also distracting. Nothing in the production of those scenes actually serves the narrative.
Ok so you may be thinking “Jack, didn’t you say at the start of this that you thought La La Land was pretty good”, and yeah, it still is. The film is really earnest about the way it feels about music and it would be hard not to get behind that.
A lot has been said about the way that Damien Chazelle deals with Jazz music. I’ll leave the conversations about cultural appropriation to other people but it’s very interesting to me how art can make us nostalgic for a thing that we were never a part of. Chazelle, and by extension Ryan Gosling’s character, weren’t alive during old Jazz period that they’re lamenting about. Emma Stone wasn’t alive during the golden age of movie musicals. But through the power of art we can make connections to things that we never actually belonged to. We can reach through time and grasp that human connection. I think that’s special. Through his club, Gosling wants people to experience that same joy and passion that he does. It’s a nice thought, even if he’s wrong and misguided about his quest to save Jazz.
Stone and Gosling can’t really sing or dance but that’s okay. I think it makes the film seem more authentic. The dancing outside the Griffith Observatory reminds me of the really wonderful dancing in the dark scene from The Band Wagon and while they’re not as graceful as Fred Astaire or Cyd Charisse, it doesn’t hurt the film, because who is? The Umbrellas of Cherbourg reference doesn’t work very well because it’s intrinsically tied to the plot without doing any of the heavy lifting in the character department, but the dancing reference doesn’t rely on that. So what the movie is doing here is do the same thing that Gosling’s character is trying to do, it’s in love with the past and it wants you to love it too. I think that’s something that everyone can get behind.
Is that dangerous? To only show the side of nostalgia tinted with hope and shining memories? One look around our cultural landscape right now would show us that there’s a dark side to nostalgia. Sometimes looking to the past can just damage the present, sometimes people get lost in it. Sometimes it narrows people’s view and sometimes it means they become out of touch with the real world (I haven’t seen a better articulation of this than the new film T2: Trainspotting). Or maybe this is why we need La La Land, because the world isn’t showing us nostalgia as a tool of hope right now, it’s showing us nostalgia as a tool of oppression and divisiveness. La La Land didn’t save Jazz and it didn’t save the musical, but it brings out a warmth of expression that I can’t fault. How could I hate that?