Exploiting our Archives: Lukewarm Takes #10 La La Land

I’ve always had an ambivalent to screamingly negative relationship with the Academy Awards, awards seasons, lists and the crazy year-end dash to see every last possible award contender before time runs out. I’ve never been terribly enamored of the kinds of movies the Academy sees fit to honor. They’re respectable and proper and prestigious. Good fucking lord is that ever boring.

How little do I care about the Academy Awards? In the two years since I stopped being a professional film critic, I haven’t just stopped watching all the big Oscar contenders. I’ve also stopped watching the Academy Awards as well. And I gotta say, it’s pretty goddamn liberating. As much as I love old Hollywood, the Oscars are bullshit and one of the nice things about not being employed in pop culture media is that I am no longer professionally obligated to care about that kind of bullshit anymore. 

Moonlight versus La La Land? I didn’t fucking care, except that Moonlight is one of the few movies I’ve seen in the theater in the past two years, and it was exceptional and lovely and moving and deserving of praise and awards and recognition. These days I see movies like a civilian. If I don’t have to see a movie for work for a freelance assignment, or on date night with the wife, then I’m probably going to just tackle it for this here column. 

I loved Whiplash, which I saw opening night at Sundance the year of its ultimate victory. I was blown away by the talent and audacity of writer-director Damien Chazelle. I was so impressed that I barely resented that Chazelle was still in his late twenties when he made Whiplash and not a bitter, angry, sad old failure like I prefer my auteurs and artists to be. 

I fucking love musicals. I was raised on musicals. Gene Kelly was one my Gods growing up. I love movies about movies to the point where I have a whole column about them (Fractured Mirror) for TCM Backlot. I similarly love movies about Los Angeles as well as Los Angeles itself, where I was blessed to work briefly in 2004 and 2005 as a panelist on Academy-Award winning 12 Years A Slave screenwriter’s John Ridley’s poorly rated yet increasingly reputable basic cable movie review panel show Movie Club With John Ridley. 

Furthermore, I love sincerity, both in human beings and in art. I want this site to be achingly, unabashedly, unapologetically sincere. The older I get, the more put off I am by cynicism and negativity and snark. So I theoretically should be the ideal audience for La La Land, Chazelle’s achingly sincere valentine to classic musicals and a town I like to call Weirdowood.

I’m a big enough film nerd that my heart fluttered when I saw that La La Land was shot in Cinemascope, the widescreen format used extensively in some of the most glorious and transcendent musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. It fluttered! The motherfucker flat-out fluttered, like a goddamn cartoon! 

La La Land opens big and broad and brassy, with an exuberant production number on a freeway as a bunch of Hollywood dreamers share their fantasies and ambitions through song and dance. 

I was overcome with emotions! And what are musicals if not explosions of emotions? I felt entertained. I felt deeply nostalgic for the world the movie treats with such incredible deference and affection. I was surprised at how nakedly, boldly, almost comically sincere this opening was but I felt some less positive emotions as well. I felt dread. I felt embarrassment. I felt shock at how unbelievably bland and straight-down-the-middle the singing and dancing felt. 

I was excited to see people singing and dancing and cavorting with plastic smiles and forced exuberance like they did in the old days but that excitement almost instantly faded once it became achingly obvious that the dancing in this particular production number, and in the film that followed, wouldn’t be the kind of dancing you’d see in an actual MGM musical from the 1950s, not even a much lesser one. No, it’d be more like the kind of dancing you might see in a Coca-Cola commercial or Gap Ad or an ambitious music video from the 90s in the style of an old musical. 

Chazelle set out to make a new musical that feels old. He’s not trying to reinvent the musical. He wisely keeps away from rock and roll altogether but during that opening sequence I found myself getting a heavy Rent vibe all the same. Like Rent, La La Land offers a carefully sanitized, Disney version of young artists living and loving and struggling and being white. In that respect, the film draws less on the skill set that Gosling has developed as one of our most exciting and enigmatic leading men than the one that he developed as a boy Mouseketeer on The New Mickey Mouse Club. 

I did not set out to hate La La Land. I derive no pleasure from hating things that bring people joy but my first response to the movie was a strong, visceral, “Oh hell no!” that held for the next two hours with a few notable exceptions. The movie has at least two lovely, lyrical sequences worthy of inclusion in one of the Freed Unit classics the movie so lovingly, if ineffectively rips off but on the whole it left me completely cold. 

My irritation began with the introduction of Sebastian Wilder, a character not even Gosling can pour any life into. Sebastian is introduced listening to music on a tape deck in his car. This is one of those movies where technology is depicted as the enemy of soul. When Sebastian is tickling the ivories, or listening to jazz on the tape deck in his car, all is well in the universe, but when he’s forced by cruel circumstance to play something that looks and sounds like a synthesizer (boo! hiss!) he’s on the verge of tears because he knows all that evil electricity is going to electrocute all the magical little jazz fairies produced by his grooving. 

Sebastian takes himself seriously to the point where he comes off like a glib caricature of a self-important, self-obsessed artiste. He’s not about prostituting his art for a paycheck, and when we see him sourly holding a Keytar when he performs with a New Wave cover band it’s supposed to be a terrible desecration of his art. But I just found myself wishing that this self-important motherfucker would get over himself.

In an Oscar-winning performance that runs the gamut from “perfectly fine” to “intermittently inspired", Emma Stone, the quarter-Hawaiian, quarter-Chinese unknown Cameron Crowe plucked from obscurity for her star-making turn in Aloha, plays Mia Dolan, who is that rarest of Southern California creatures: an attractive young white woman who dreams of making it as an actress. 

These two crazy kids are in love with their art forms and in love with Los Angeles and in love with each other but Mia has the kind of dreary philistine boyfriend who prefers to watch movies at home like a total fucking philistine and says things like, “Bleep bloop! Business is good! Art is bad! Only Kenny G should be allowed to perform black music!” 

Well, okay, he technically does not say that, but if he had more than three lines of dialogue he might have. I suspect that La La Land did not emerge as a historic Oscar contender because it is an incontrovertible masterpiece but rather because it flatters the enormous, insatiable egos of the Hollywood community by once again reassuring them that they occupy the white-hot epicenter of the universe and that there is no greater subject for art than the struggles of bland white people on the fringes of show-business. 

Sebastian eventually goes to work for a musician played by John Legend whose music is popular and contemporary and consequently an unforgivable insult to the true essence of jazz, which is intensely unpopular and only for Gosling’s character specifically. The movie’s conception of selling out—which includes a wonderfully terrible sequence where, as part of his job as a keyboardist, he’s somehow forced to dress up like a Color Me Badd back-up dancer (pristine white baseball hat and 90s-style facial hair included) for a Mojo photo shoot with just him—looks to me like an insufferably pretentious “artiste” finally getting over himself enough to actually play music people might want to hear.  

Speaking of pretentious horse shit no one in their right mind would ever pay money to see, Mia, meanwhile, decides to mount a one-woman show, not unlike Billy Crystal’s 600 Sundays, in order to pursue her art. These starry-eyed lovers become star-crossed lovers, however, when a dream acting assignment takes her to Europe for months, away from the man of her dreams.  

How white is La La Land? It’d be white for a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, let alone a movie about black music and the white man who is the only one who truly knows how to play and appreciate it. Hell, Gosling’s doesn’t just play the jazz. My man Handsome McHonky is jazz, not unlike the incredibly racist caricature of an old blues musician Billy Crystal used to perform during the many decades he was under the mistaken impression that blackface minstrelsy was a hot new trend coming back into fashion, and something he should definitely embrace with zero self-consciousness or self-awareness. Can you dig it? I knew that you could! 

No one this young should be successful

No one this young should be successful

I wanted desperately to fall in love with La La Land. I wanted to lose myself in its shimmering world of imagination, in its old-school love of singing and dancing and love yet the only time the movie ever affected me the way it seems to have affected the world was during a pair of production numbers that alone realize the movie’s enormous ambition. 

In the first production number, Sebastian and Mia are at the Griffith Observatory, that sacred Los Angeles shrine where a key scene in Rebel Without A Cause was filmed and that has subsequently become something of a sacred cathedral for movie lovers, James Dean aficionados, and, I suppose, people who enjoy looking at stars and shit. 

In this elegant, unforgettable number, Sebastian and Mia dance and dance and dance until they’re floating deliriously up high in the cosmos, surrounded by diamond-like pin-points of light as their infatuation lifts them higher and higher.

The second production number takes place following a rather jarring “Five years later” time leap and offers a waking dream alternate version of Sebastian and Mia’s relationship where their relationship didn’t end with their separation and instead grew stronger and stronger until they were the life partners they seemingly always should have been. 

The sequence works as spectacle but it also works on an emotional level. It’s a powerful, if too late illustration of musicals’ ability to affect audiences on a deep emotional level but it would have resonated so much more if I had cared at all about Sebastian or Mia at all, which I simply did not. 

I could not bring myself to care about the film’s hopelessly self-absorbed protagonists despite them being so beautiful, and so white, and so very very committed to their various art forms. It’s not even like La La Land lost me because it never had me. The grand gestalt of La La Land left me colder than Mr. Freeze on an Antartica adventure but I will concede that for a handful of individual moments, the movie made my heart sing and my spirit soar, but then I went back to being bored and disappointed out of my mind. 

I didn’t even hate La La Land. Instead I felt powerfully indifference towards it, which may actually be a more damning and negative response than flat-out contempt.

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