By Taylor Smith
La La Land opens wearing its nostalgia on its sleeve. The first words across the screen—“Shot in CinemaScope”—may as well be a hand-written note to Baby Boomer film critics and Academy voters featuring a personalized reminder of their childhood. But nostalgia—specifically American nostalgia—is not a privilege all of us enjoy equally. It’s for this exact reason that the movie musical’s opening number is so heartening. In the heat of one of those infamous LA traffic jams, struggling artists diverse in color and sound ground us squarely in a modern and more inclusive Hollywood. Remnants of this self-awareness are sprinkled throughout, like the leading lady’s cracked iPhone screen. But the promise is ultimately a false one. And while La La Land does many things quite well—its acting and cinematography are breathtaking—it fails to live up to its record-breaking hype.
The most head-scratching of La La Land’s missteps almost prevented me from seeing the movie altogether: Ryan Gosling, the Caucasian savior of jazz. And lest you think the savior position is merely my perception, I point you straight to the horse’s mouth: “It’s dying on the vine…,” Gosling’s Sebastian tells his sister in the film’s first chapter, “… not on my watch.” The film ignores jazz’s deep roots in the black community to a point that is almost beyond comprehension, allowing Sebastian to rant to Emma Stone’s Mia about how people don’t like jazz because they don’t know the “context” while failing to mention the genre’s forefathers. This curious omission is only compounded by the overall lack of nonwhite characters, and the baffling decision to cast John Legend—a black man of well-documented musical talent—as an antagonistic figure who dilutes jazz with his evil, palatable fusion. The film seems to take place in an alternate reality in which black jazz musicians and their contributions do not exist, so Ryan Gosling is free to claim the genre while singing poorly.
Even if you’re willing to cast its unfortunate racial blind spot aside, La La Land’s relationship to jazz is still peculiar. As Vulture’s Seve Chambers outlines, Sebastian’s approach to jazz is almost the antithesis of what jazz is and always has been: a form of expression rooted in creativity, improvisation, and progressive change. Given director Damien Chazelle’s love of jazz, it seems quite odd that he presented such a black-and-white discussion of it so uncritically. And La La Land’s musical problems don’t stop there.
Minutes after leaving Lincoln Center, I had entirely forgotten all but one of the musical numbers—the last one. The “movie musical’s” two leads barely sing, often opting for romantic but unexciting dance numbers (including one in which Emma and Sebastian literally float into the air, leaving me wishing I too could drift to the nearest exit). When they do put their pipes to use, they avoid the big vocal moments you expect from a musical, showcasing the kind of restraint that’s better suited to singers with more to restrain. Unlike the rest, Stone’s last song burns with a desperation that the majority of the soundtrack lacks. Stone has admitted she is not the best vocalist, but with impeccable acting and plain-old feeling, she overcomes some of her shortcomings in “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).” Upon hearing it, I couldn’t help but wonder what could’ve been.
Without captivating music to tide me over, I looked to the script for intrigue and was sorely disappointed. Barely rising above caricature, Sebastian offers cringeworthy lines like “Does she like jazz?… Then what are we going to talk about?”, while Mia is not developed beyond “aspiring actress.” As plot goes, the lovers’ tale is too boring and unearned through the first three chapters to earn a spot among the best Hollywood romances, and the rest is too unresolved to make up for it.
Concerning its major themes—love, ambition, and Hollywood—La La Land has next to nothing interesting or original to offer. It’s a generic tale of boy meets girl and life gets in the way, with a few inoffensive but unmemorable songs thrown in. And while there’s no way the filmmakers could have predicted either the current political climate or the film’s success, timing and optics still matter. As Hollywood grows more and more eager to get political at award shows, it’s confounding to envision the top Oscar honor going to a film that proudly says nothing at all.
Yes, they don’t make them like La La Land anymore. But as the movie itself too often ignores, there are some pretty good reasons for that.
La La Land has polarized viewers and even irked some critics in its quest for the gold. Now that you’ve heard the opposition, check out Dominic Curran’s defense of the Oscar frontrunner.
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