La La Land
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
I like musicals. I really do. And when I went to see La La Land I expected to be swept away with wonderful songs, decent dancing, and a story enchanting enough to make me forget how tense real life has become. Despite my love of Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Hamilton, I don’t need my musicals to be philosophical think pieces. I do need them to have catchy songs and an engaging story. Unfortunately in La La Land, I found nothing of the sort. Despite Emma Stone’s best efforts, I have to say the worst thing I could ever possibly think of to say about a film: It was boring.
Ostensibly La La Land is the story of Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actress, who meets and falls in love with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) an uber serious jazz musician whose biggest problem is that no one likes serious jazz (not actually true, by the way). When their careers begin to conflict, they struggle to maintain their relationship.
The music should carry the film. It does not. Emma Stone carries the film and is the only reason it is remotely watchable. A good musical will have you walk away humming a tune that is irresistable. Even after seeing La La Land win the Oscar for best original song, I couldn’t tell you what the song was, or how it goes. None of the music has any of the infectious catchiness of memorable musical songs. There is no “Singing in the Rain,” no “My Shot.” Nothing made me want to own the soundtrack.
But as a film it’s worse than simply not being memorable. Stone and Gosling engage in a slow build of a relationship through the first half of the movie. The songs should carry our attention through; but they don’t. So instead of a charmingly slow build of a sweet and innocent romance reminiscent of 1950’s Hollywood, it’s just slow. My mind wandered. I debated getting popcorn. I glanced around the theater wondering if anyone was enjoying themselves.
Let me illustrate my own boredom. At a pivotal point, Mia has made a date with Sebastian, and as she’s primping in the mirror, some other guy shows up at her house acting as if they have a prior engagement. The situation is meant to prompt a tension, will she fulfill her commitment to dinner with this guy, or will she follow her heart and run to meet Sebastian?
Now, I had absolutely no idea who this other guy was. I’m pretty sure we’d never seen him before. It’s fairly clear Mia doesn’t have a boyfriend. Or if this guy is a boyfriend he wasn’t properly introduced, making for a pretty big plot mistake. Or maybe he was and I missed it. I never left the theater, mind you, but the film failed to hold my attention to such a degree, that I may have missed a significant plot point. Honestly, I don’t know which is right. Did this “date” come out of nowhere? Or was the movie so boring that I was missing parts due to my mind going to la la land during La La Land?
In the end, you’ll make up your own mind about how much you liked the music, or whether your attention was rapt by the events on screen. I needed to say these things, but, I’m here to do philosophical reviews that address underlying themes and purposes to the cinematic experiences I undertake. From this perspective La La Land almost gets interesting about two thirds of the way in, when it finally reveals what it’s doing.
At this point, Mia is failing miserably at being an actress, so she decides, with the help of her ever encouraging now boyfriend Sebastian, to write a one woman show that she will put on herself in the hopes of attracting the kind of attention she’s failing to get elsewhere. In the movie’s pivotal scene, Stone has just read through her play in front of Gosling and the following exchange takes place.
Sebastian It’s great.
Mia: Is it? It feels too nostalgic.
Sebastian: Yes, but that’s the point.
Mia: But what if people don’t like it?
Sebastian: Fuck ’em.
If you didn’t catch it, they are talking about La La Land, this nostalgic Hollywood musical which reaches back into the deep past beyond both the hip hop infused story telling of Lin Manuel Miranda and even the operatic rock infused musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber. But what if we, the audience, don’t appreciate this foray back to the 1950s? Well, Sebastian tells us how much the writer and producers of La La Land care.
Of course having a lead character tell the audience to fuck off, isn’t exactly something you’d find in a Gene Kelly musical, so it’s nostalgia with an edge. A desire for the past with a contemporary, take no prisoners, politically incorrect attitude. It’s… holy shit, it’s Donald Trump.
“Is it really that bad?” you want to ask. “Aren’t you being hyperbolic? After all, Ryan Gosling is America’s sexiest male feminist, isn’t he? Stone and Gosling can’t possibly be engaged in a project similar to Trump’s toxic nostalgia.
Let’s ask about the story. Sebastian and Mia are both struggling artists. Sebastian is struggling because he conceives of himself as an unappreciated serious jazz musician. His success only comes when he realizes that to “save” jazz he has to abandon his dignity and appeal to mass culture. In this way he can introduce jazz to a new generation, and perhaps recapture what was lost with the advent of pop rock.
It’s difficult to not recognize the republican party in this. The constant cry to move America back to the 50s, to eschew feminism and civil rights, to ban abortion, to reinstitute “Christian” values has more or less fallen on deaf ears in recent years. But in embracing the crass populist rhetoric of Trump, the Republican party saw a way to overcome their malaise. There’s a whole base of people waiting to be energized by undignified displays, and once won over, we will be able to open our successful serious jazz club, or bring back Leave It to Beaver. Whatever your throwback vision is.
Of course in the film, it works. Sort of. Sebastian is able to open his serious jazz club after riding the coat tails of “non serious” (I guess) jazz musician John Legend, and it is packed with now eager customers. Dignity restored, I guess. But of course there is a hitch. Did I say hitch? “H” might not be the best letter there.
Mia, having failed and given up on acting returns to her Colorado home, only to be encouraged to attend one more audition by Mr. Super-feminist ultra supportive Sebastian. This after she had already basically broken up with him for being too successful when her career was floundering. He even calls her on it in a previous scene, saying something to the effect of, “You liked me better when I was a failure because it made you feel better about yourself.”
But even she berates him for being successful, he drives to Colorado, talks her into one more audition, drives her back, and is nothing but “Go get ’em. You got this.” And of course she does, and is whisked away to Paris for a three year committed film shoot. The two assure each other that no matter what happens they will always love each other, but it’s clear they’ve come to the end of their story.
Skip ahead five years, and we see Mia is now married to someone else, a wildly successful actress, her face on billboards, a charming husband and child. She and her husband find their way to Sebastian’s serious jazz club and stay for a drink. Sebastian and Mia see each other, but don’t speak. It’s very The Way We Were.
But pay attention. At this point, we as the audience, are robbed of our anticipated happy ending. But Why? Well because Sebastian has supported Mia right out of his arms and into a career of her own. Beware gentleman, a career woman will break your heart as soon as she is successful. Best opt for the June Cleaver type. Nothing says marrying material like wearing pearls while dusting.
Of course as Mia sits in the club, we see an alternate ending played out via her fantasy. Now, it’s not entirely clear who it is that’s fantasizing, but I think Mia makes the most sense. The fantasy begins with Mia getting the role in Paris and Sebastian dropping his career to go with her. In effect, nothing changes for Mia, she sacrifices nothing, but imagines the person she loves sacrificing everything for her. We see, therefore, Mia and Sebastian stay together, raise a family, etc. Of course, it’s all a lie, a dream, and we find ourselves back at Sebastian’s club. Mia, with her new husband, leaves without saying anything, and life goes on.
Now there are many ways to interpret this ending. A charitable way for progressives would be to say that it’s Sebastian imagining if he had been strong enough to follow her, then they would be together. But you have to keep in mind, this is not a progressive movie. It’s nostalgic, a throw back. It tells you this time and again. The only conclusion I can reasonably come to is that Mia’s career ruins their chances, and Sebastian made it happen by being so supportive of her in the first place.
Ryan Gosling, America’s favorite male feminist, plays the dupe to the feminist agenda which puts women’s careers ahead of men’s. Red Pill taken. Or maybe not. Maybe I’m just finding reasons to hate this movie beyond the fact that it was so incredibly dull. Maybe my mental wanderings while I watched led me to my own imaginative philosophical interpretation in order to redeem this film by giving me something, anything, interesting to talk about.
In either case, I think it’s very dangerous to embrace misplaced nostalgia in the theater while attempting to fight against it in the world. At the very least, La La Land is asking us to do the former, and that may come with more than you bargained for.