I was hesitant to write this, because I really am in support of Hollywood making movie musicals again. Not to mention that many of my friends enjoyed this movie and I didn't want to be the Asian that rained on their parade.
But I didn’t like La La Land. You can un-friend me now.
But I didn’t like La La Land. You can un-friend me now.
I’d heard good things about La La Land, but I confess it wasn’t really at the top of my list. Probably because I’m not a huge fan of romantic comedies (though there are some exceptions- Shakespeare In Love, The Princess Bride, and basically any other movie where handsome men wear very tight pants). I am a Broadway geek, however, and a music school grad, so my friends were surprised that I wasn’t scrambling to see this film. I guess something about it just screamed ‘seen it before.’ Which I suppose is the point- it’s meant to elicit nostalgia.
I understand the appeal. The Golden Age of Musicals was a simpler time, with simple stories that drew in crowds. A cowboy and a farm girl fell in love to a golden melody. A conman changed his ways to impress a librarian. A little girl from Kansas went on the acid trip of the century before telling her family that she saw them in her sleep. In this complicated world of cell phones, social media, and Dippin Dots, “retro” is in. Albeit a very specific understanding of “retro.” Because tap dancing in the moonlight is all good and fun, but when you consider that black men were lynched for drinking from white-only water fountains, it starts to look less golden. See, for me and for many others the Golden Age of Musicals is hard to romanticize.
Perhaps part of this review is coloured by context. We are at a unique point in history when you can legitimately have an argument with a Nazi while riding a hover-board. With the resurgence in popularity of white supremacy and a longing for so-called old school values, I simply found it impossible to ignore the racial politics at play in La La Land. The distraction proved too great to enjoy the film.
Before I continue, I want to state that I actually really like Emma Stone and Ryan hot Gosling. And considering that they’re mainly straight actors, they did decent jobs in the lead roles.
But here is where my frustration with the film lies. They did decent jobs. As a plethora of brilliant dancers fanned through an LA highway in the film’s opening number, my heart sank. None of these talented people got to star in the film. And in a story about seeking fame and fulfillment, none of these people became stars in the film. Here was a movie where a rainbow of phenomenal dancers, and singers- some of whom, I have to reason, must also be good actors- surrounded two people who bounced through basic tap choreography, and lacked all expression in their vocal performances.
I felt like I was watching these talented people of colour move about like set pieces in a minstrel show, bringing excitement to the world of the two white protagonists; one of whom has the absurd plotline of being the only person that understands jazz, and needs to save it from extinction.
You see, in La La Land Gosling’s character, Sebastian, is a jazz prodigy, who loves the genre for its purity and complexity. In one scene, he brings Stone’s character, Mia, to watch old, black musicians perform. Nevermind the awkward juxtaposition of these performers, who probably lived through segregation, playing their hearts out for the happy white couple. Sebastian is made to be Mia’s gateway into this world of authentic (ie: black) music, and in this presumption, he’s somehow a part of that specific world. Unlike the suits and the young upstarts, he alone can introduce his girlfriend (and the audience) to “real” jazz. The jazz band itself is only a prop meant to enhance a white story- their “retro blackness” is a sign of how cool and down-to-earth Gosling’s character must be. But the band’s struggle, culture, and voice is completely erased from the narrative.
To be fair, at one point I thought there might be some redemption for this bizarrely insensitive plot-line. But then the only group of young black musicians in the film lose touch with their roots and seek only gimmicky flash (that our hero Sebastian of course hates and eventually rises above).
At the other end of this frustrating story, Emma Stone plays Mia, an actress who is struggling to get by. She faces rejection after rejection, before finally proving her worth to a casting director and rocketing to stardom. This is after she writes her own one-woman show, and performs it out of pocket. Her story is structured around the Protestant work ethic which permeates American philosophy- plainly, what you give is what you get. The suggestion here is that, anyone who is talented enough, and willing to put in the work, will be discovered and all their dreams will come true. But Mia is surrounded by many other actors and actresses- many of whom are ethnic, many of whom work hard, and many of whom are clearly talented. Yet none of them seem to achieve stardom. In a time when Hollywood is really under the lens for whitewashing and racebending, when it’s being criticized for its lack of diversity, it seems almost too meta. These actresses only serve as background fodder for Mia. Just like their characters, the actresses hit a ceiling in the film itself.
|Thoroughly Modern Millie|
There is an infuriating unawareness in La La Land throughout. An earnest desire to see “diversity” but only insofar as it paints a backdrop for the “real” heroes. Maybe this is part of the nostalgia- two familiar girl/guy next door types who fall in love beneath the moonlight- but in a modern twist they are surrounded by a diverse ensemble. Barf.
It's nothing new. Movie musicals certainly have a history of racial exclusion. The Golden Age featured blatantly racist films like Thoroughly Modern Millie (which was thankfully updated and modernized for the stage). And then there were the countless films that committed the crime of invisibility. Remember, this is a genre that took its roots from jazz music and tap, yet rarely featured black protagonists. Not to mention performers of other races.
Like all epochs, though, it's not so cut and dry. As with any other Hollywood production, movie musicals were bound by agreements like the Hays Code, and influenced by public ideology at the time. Despite their flaws, musical theatre, and musical movies, do actually have a long history of subversion. Showboat dealt with racism, poverty, and sexism. My Fair Lady with classism and female autonomy. Even the racist Thoroughly Modern Millie challenged ideas of gender norms, and women’s rights. In musical movies, the love story was often the starring narrative, but the setting was the message. This is arguably because music has the incredible power to move us, and allows for a freedom of storytelling you don’t see in straight drama. Because of its relatively “safe” reputation, it’s able to make a point without being too threatening to audiences. IMHO subversion is in fact a key element to the genre
Which brings us back to La La Land.
What does La La Land do except glorify a bygone era and transplant it into the 21st century, in a weird fulfillment of every alt-right wet dream. It tells a love story. One we’ve seen before, with archetypes we’ve seen before, in a setting we’ve seen before. And it does nothing to challenge our view of society, in a time when we really need to be questioning ourselves.
This is a shame, because there was a chance for this film to be very modern. How much more interesting would this film have been with a black male lead? What if Emma Stone’s character were a woman of colour? How would that change her journey to stardom? How much more of a disadvantage would she be at at the start of the film?
As it is, racial representations in the film were simply too distracting for me, especially considering political events as of late (which, to be fair to the filmmakers, happened after the release of the film). I found myself rolling my eyes every time people of colour performed for the leads. I felt like I was watching racial insensitivity in motion, where two people are inspired by “cool ethnic culture,” and then rocket to stardom.
Was La La Land a solid movie? Objectively well-structured, well-shot, and well-acted? Yes. Am I glad it was made? Yes. Because I hope it will inspire studios to take more risks on musicals. And was I glad I saw it? Yes. Because it reminded me of how much further we have to go.
So yes, La La Land is a good film, and I don’t blame anyone who finds it enjoyable. But no, I didn’t like it. Even though it stars Ryan hot Gosling.