The fetishization of the past is inevitable in a society where virtually no work of pop culture goes unmemorialized and hack creatives can shamelessly co-opt the iconography of cultural landmarks to shine reflected glory on their anemic pastiches. In La La Land, Damien Chazelle really really really wants you to think about classic Hollywood musicals, but not too closely.
Much of Land‘s box-office success hinged on it being a movie musical made for people who don’t know much about movie musicals other than they’re pretty sure they don’t like movie musicals — well, aside from Grease 2, everybody loves Grease 2 — a similar dynamic to how the recent Star Trek movies got rid of all the heady crap that its comparatively small fanbase loves so they could pump out simplistic adventures for the massive pool of moviegoers who don’t know much about Star Trek other than they’re pretty sure they don’t like Star Trek. La La Land was sold as the long-awaited return of the movie musical to greatness, a line of horseshit that film critics and studio marketers have trotted out for every movie musical released since the genre transitioned from being a studio Red Giant to a White Dwarf in the late ’60s. The pattern of this dutiful journalistic water-carrying is as reliable as the regularity of Rolling Stone critics lining up to hail every new Bob Dylan album as “his best record since Blood on the Tracks” without an iota of cognitive dissonance.
Land‘s opening number, populated by a troupe of anonymous dancers that is as meticulously diverse and culturally authentic as the average private college’s marketing brochure, is set in the middle of a Los Angeles traffic jam. As Hollywood’s product has devolved from intellectually juvenile to infantile, the average film-goer’s grasp of the mechanics and technology of modern film-making has somehow grown more sophisticated — so it’s no surprise that even your Aunt Edna noticed and was dazzled by Chazelle’s roving camera and sorta-done-in-one takes. Too bad Edna didn’t notice that what his camera recorded was lackluster dancing shot with what seems to have been about as much forethought as she gives to her smartphone videos of backyard cookouts; I will go to my grave never doping out how the dancers’ faces could be so shadowy when they were recorded on a freeway onramp in the middle of a sunny Los Angeles day. Once again, we’re supposed to think about the boffo precision and wonder of those classic Hollywood showstoppers … but not think about them too closely. Also, [INSERT ’90s RETRO “R.E.M. CALLED — THEY WANT THEIR ‘EVERYBODY HURTS’ MUSIC VIDEO BACK” JOKE HERE.]
This movie has so many problems that I’d like to get its least malignant aspect out of the way as quickly I can before the messier portion of my autopsy: The music itself. The songs are pleasant enough, although few would make the cut for a Muppet movie and a week after seeing Land you can sing/hum what little you can recall of them in slightly more time than it takes to flush a toilet. The film’s main musical theme is vaguely reminiscent of a Marvin Hamlisch melody but with none of the red-blooded, alpha-male swagger that was Hamlisch’s trademark. I have no doubt the songs compelled scads of tweener girls’ parents to buy them keyboards, sheet music of the soundtrack and quickly abandoned music lessons. Oh, and boy howdy, the actors try really hard to sing and dance but the performing arts haven’t joined the movement to give everyone a participation award for everything.
In telling a story about two showbiz wannabes struggling to make it big, Los Angeles is once again flattened into a mere backdrop for a crappy movie that’s kinda-sorta-not really about itself. The movers and shakers of L.A. love movies about their town passionately but not wisely, throwing their power and influence behind such movies to attract widespread industry praise, ticket-buying interest from civilians and critical acclaim to laminate the film with a veneer of vital cultural importance. These movies are almost always forgotten before dust starts to collect on whatever Oscars they win, which I call “The Crash Effect.” Remember Crash? No, not the Cronenberg & Spader car sex movie, although that one is pretty good. No cheating and looking it up on IMDB — this is the Crash that won three Academy Awards [Best Picture, Original Screenplay and Editing] of the six nominations it collected. Come on, you remember it; this was barely more than a decade ago. Okay, fine, it’s the Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Brendan Fraser movie. Remember now? It was basically a shoddy riff on Altman’s Nashville but about race and feeling sad and living in L.A. There are reasons why you don’t remember it.
Against this tuxedo T-shirt of a setting, we’re introduced to our protagonists: Seb [Ryan Gosling] and Mia [Emma Stone]. Seb is a white savior of jazz music, rolling around town in a big old gas-guzzling boat of a convertible [don’t judge him about climate change, man; it’s way more authentic to drive a real car, like, made in Detroit] as he listens obsessively to a specific piano run on his car’s cassette deck because listening to vinyl on a portable turntable in the passenger seat would have been too much for even this movie. Mia, a struggling actress and barista, drives a blandly generic Prius like everyone else; at one point, a green ribbon is all that differentiates hers from a wall of Prius keys in a parking valet’s organizer. Seb and Mia meet as cute as two Angelenos can on a highway: She’s so wrapped up in practicing her lines for an audition that she holds up her lane, Seb lays on his horn as he pulls in the other lane and their eyes meet as he drives by [still honking his horn; get used to him being a smug asshole] and she flips him off. With no bullets exchanged, this SoCal highway encounter is downright adorable, just like how Pappy and Nana met back in the olden days.
The movie tries to position Seb as a racially nondenominational jazz evangelist — the movie sprinkles a number of white jazzbo faces among the totemic fetishes that fill his apartment — but he ultimately comes across as just another white savior obsessed with black art that can only be considered “authentic” if it abides by his terms. In Seb’s case, it’s jazz that stopped its generations-spanning evolution around the same time Dr. King wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This is a movie about jazz for people who don’t know much about jazz except that they’re pretty sure they don’t like jazz, so it can get away with presenting what’s supposed to be a knowledgeable young hipster whose frame of reference for his particular “Oh, you’ve probably never even heard of this obscure cool thing I really like” line of bullshit is as narrow as last Saturday’s afternoon playlist on your local NPR jazz radio station.
Seb is miserable whenever he “sells out” his art by playing anything other than his kind of jazz, so those scenes are stacked to be taken as equally bad: Playing synthesizers in a crappy ’80s cover band is just as bad as playing Christmas music on a grand piano at a fancy restaurant is just as bad as playing electric keyboards in a popular modern-jazz group that writes and records its own material. I think we’re supposed to see John Legend’s character [the leader of the modern band] as a silver-tongued grifter who’s happy to corrupt real jazz to make a buck, and not as a musician living in 2016 America who harnesses the harmonic and rhythmic tools developed by his predecessors to create jazz that’s relevant to people today. That’s what every previous generation did, although the boldest innovators have rarely received the mainstream attention that past pioneers enjoyed since the rise of Weather Channel/elevator/Kenny G jazz and the hoity-toity cultural imprisonment of pre-Fusion jazz on NPR. Seb knows better and his mansplaining skills are so unstoppable that they can even drown out the sound of an actual jazz group’s playing in the club he and Mia visit. Like most mansplainers, his expertise is shit; one walk through any record store in November could educate anyone on the staggering number of jazz luminaries who had no problem recording Christmas records and improvising on holiday melodies — but Seb being told to play carols for restaurant patrons reduces him to a sullen, pouty dickhead whom anyone would fire.
Taken with his previous film, Whiplash, Land suggests that Chazelle views any alteration or structure imposed on an artist from outside totally annihilates that artist’s identity. This attitude works fine for practitioners of dead or marginal arts like oil painting, poetry and square-dance calling, but film is a medium that requires dozens and often hundreds of outside opinions and limitations that even a multi-hyphenated genius auteur sometimes must accept. Lesser mortals call this tyranny “collaboration,” but even Orson Welles couldn’t be a one-man band. It’s interesting that an all-or-nothing auteurist would choose two genres that can’t exist without collaboration; less than a handful of director/stars aside, the golden age of movie musicals were driven by producers and shaped across dozens of departments in their studio’s factory-style assembly line. Even on the stage, where scale and cost of production could make such a musical possible — and much more profitable than a conventional ensemble, cha-ching cha-ching — we still don’t see one-person-does-literally-everything shows. It’s just not a polymath’s medium. When Seb mansplains why Mia is wrong to not like jazz — again, over the sound of actual jazz — he’s most excited about who’s soloing and when, as if musical improvisation is a rhythmic/melodic free-for-all performed by a group of individual soloists who show less interest in waiting their turn than the guys at your last bukkake on’na, instead of it being a spontaneous but supportive collaboration by an ensemble. Spoiler alert: Whiplash ends with our drummer hero proving he’s finally worthy to be in the big important band, sitting behind his kit for the first number of the big important concert … and immediately hijacking the show with a barrage of tedious, fuck-your-show-I’m-the-best soloing. I haven’t longed to see such a clueless blowhard fail in front of an audience since the night Zakk Wylde filled in for Dickey Betts at an Allman Brothers noodlefest, but played like such an overbearing prick that the band had to lead him into improvisational deepwater and dunk him repeatedly until he finally turned his volume down and supported the other soloists in the band.
[By the way: If you’re in the San Antonio area next Spring, feel free to stop by the annual convention of the Cognitive Neurologists Association; I’ll be leading a two-day workshop of the greatest minds in the field as we struggle to find an explanation for how Chazelle can hold such diametrically opposed concepts in his mind without his neck becoming a skull cannon/blood geyser on the first day of a film’s production.]
Also like Whiplash, Land is a lonely movie, largely out of egotism. Mia and Seb don’t seem to have any real friends or even exist in a society outside of themselves. Early on, Seb’s sister gets one scene with her brother for what initially looked to be just a slightly clumsy exposition dump but might have also served to set up an interracial-marriage scene that’s superfluous except as negative-reaction insurance in case anyone had a problem with a moment in the jazz club scene straight out of Jim Crow Hollywood: A group of smiling colored folk cheer Mia on as she gambols about to the hot jazz that Seb’s going to save. Yikes? [I presume that wasn’t the Classic Hollywood we were supposed to recall here, but I’m also pretty sure Legend is the only African-American in the film who gets any lines of dialogue so … yeah.] Mia is also perpetually alone: Her roommates are as unique, individually memorable and color-coordinated as Donald Duck’s nephews — but unlike Huey, Dewey and Louie, the roomies don’t get names. Aside from the occasional pep talk from Seb, she’s seen working on her entire show by herself and even on the night of her one-woman performance — it’s a solo show because of course it is — the only other people we encounter are a pathetically small, mostly anonymous audience [good thing the roommates sat together or we wouldn’t have recognized them] and later the disembodied voices of stagehands talking shit about the show, which hurts Mia’s feefees.
Emma Stone earned all of the awards she collected for her work in this shit heap. Mia is barely more than a cypher, a straw woman to contrast with Seb’s supposed artistic integrity. While Seb sneers — as much as Gosling’s handsome mask of a face allows him to sneer — at the idea that an old L.A. jazz club is now what he considers a culturally fraudulent tapas bar, Mia is bossed around a corporate coffee shop serving movie-studio employees whenever she’s not auditioning for day-player roles in entertainingly lousy-sounding TV/movie productions. Stone can’t hide that she’s a lot smarter than her character but the strength of her performance shines brightest in those audition scenes, where she illuminates the actor’s vulnerability and hair-trigger humiliation in a way that’s so raw and painful to see it’s easy to imagine she can still draw on unhealed wounds to her psyche from past auditions. You root for Stone — not Mia, Stone herself — not just because she’s easily the best thing in the movie, but because she’s heroic in her struggle to find ways of transcending the lousiness of the counterfeit musical that her character’s trapped in. But even Stone can’t save her final audition scene, where Mia tells a story about her aunt’s Parisian adventures that draws the aunt’s character more vividly in two minutes than the movie has drawn Mia’s in two hours. The musical aspect of Land wusses out and disappears as the plot darkens in the second act, so it’s disorienting when Mia starts singing about her aunt. For a moment it plays like she’s intentionally torpedoing her big break to match Seb’s integrity/assholicism, but then you remember that you’re watching the long-awaited return of the film musical to greatness.
Now, for my second-favorite favorite part of the film: When the movie finally ended. [#1 favorite is Stone lighting up the screen dancing and lip-syncing to “I Ran,” Mia relishing her chance to simultaneously bust Seb’s balls about blowing her off in the previous scene and force a serious musician like him to actually play a keytar.] Five years later, we see Mia is now a movie star and Seb owns his own successful jazz club. But then we learn that Mia somehow crammed the roughly year-long production/promotion cycle of her presumably star-making movie on one end of those five years and a year and change to create the toddler she comes home to after a day on the studio lot on the other end. If I’m doing the math right, she only gets two and a half years as the successful actress she yearned to be before becoming a mother. On a date night, Mia and BabyDaddyDoesn’tGetAName take an unplanned detour to escape a traffic jam and stumble into Seb’s club. From the stage, Seb sees Mia. He sits down at the stage piano and plays the movie’s tinkly theme yet again, which sweeps up into an all-singing-all-dancing sorta-Busby Berkeley-kinda-Gene Kelly pastiche that sets up but then yanks away the genre’s expected happy [or at least emotionally satisfying] ending with the verve of Lucy Van Pelt denying Charlie Brown his football.
After enduring two hours of contradictory ideas, questionable cultural assumptions and a lack of faith that musicals can keep singing as they carry major emotional freight, let’s not give this hard left turn into an unhappy ending the benefit of the doubt. La La Land has the emotional intelligence and wisdom of a 15 year old who just watched Contempt and, like, totally understood it — so the movie tries to have it both ways, with cardboard-deep characters coming to a complex, real-world resolution that’s probably supposed to be accepted as the most authentic conclusion. That said, I admire Chazelle for getting the ending past the six production companies that produced the film, despite the revolting implications it leaves you with as the credits roll: Seb triumphs on his own terms and Mia becomes a part-time actress and a brood sow for what looks to be a douchebag studio executive twice her age. Hooray for Hollywood!