Girl meets guy. Girl falls in love with guy. Girl is Mia, a struggling actress played by a very-much-not-struggling actress Emma Stone. Guy is Sebastian, a poetically long-suffering jazz musician played by Ryan Gosling. Guy is also writer-director Damien Chazelle, who mostly just loves himself.
La La Land is a technicolor fantasia, a vacation spot, and buff-and-shines for a veritable armada of Bonafide Classic stylistic touchstones, all in service of Damien Chazelle somewhat cynically showing us that he has goods to play with the older, more wizened hands in the poker game. The film’s mind is a wandering, stylistically promiscuous consciousness that temporarily houses itself in a jambalaya of classical musical film influences. Or, in other words, a film that is very much keen to prove that it is an old soul dusting itself off with fancy new tricks. And tricks it certainly boasts in abundance. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren browses through every canted angle, camera-pirouette, and fluorescent color he can find in the film library, having been given seeming free-reign to concoct a cotton-candy parallel universe.
The purpose of this universe? To partially emancipate the audience from real-world obligations, but never to emancipate us so much that we dare consider the film a full-on fantasy, which might have been legitimately radical rather than simply overly-manicured and sanctimoniously cowardly in its middlebrow chastity. It’s the old Hollywood sublime: not too serious, not too silly, but the proverbial “just right”, and hell-bent on not poisoning the well of entertainment the audience drinks from. Too much tilt in one tonal direction might actually give the film a point of view, an identity, or a mood worth discussing. Dancing jolts of the camera’s eye, flamboyant color-coding, devilishly tasty production design courtesy of David and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco that traffics in lurid dream logic? La La Land has it all, and they are all mimetics for the sensory delight Mia and Sebastian emanate despite – or because of – their creative frustrations.
These stylistic volleys are also barrel-chested refractions of Chazelle’s own gutsy and gilded desire for mainstream appreciation, galvanized in his inarguable technical audacity as a filmmaker. A peppermint forgery that could decay your teeth, the real issue with Chazelle’s vision – skilled at mimicry as he may be – is that it really isn’t one. He steals cart blanche – or “pays homage” if you will, or if he will – to multitudes of other films, but his product is trapped in a liminal space between successes. His forebears, MGM musicals and Jacques Demy films mostly, are too similar and genre-bound for La La Land to function as a madcap cinematic jukebox vacillating excitedly between tones, style, and moods. And they are too insoluble, too different, each operating on their own terms, for La La Land to accomplish anything more than intruding on their nuances and stamping out their particular textures with the atrophying boot-hill of its all-devouring appetite for processed beauty. La La Land flattens all this robustly contradictory noise – different films, prismatic identities – into one wavelength, fertilizing a nullifying and unearned equilibrium between ebullient lift, droll comedy, and rough-and-tumble drama. Basically, the film has too many flags flying at half-mast; they aren’t even radically different enough for La La Land to mushroom into a manic maelstrom sailing in fascinatingly contradictory directions all at once. That would be too broken for this film that lives to scrub-down everything and make it clean.
And, you know, for what it’s worth, La La Land does totally set the screen ablaze almost throughout. The film is almost insurmountably good at what it does. The director may be woefully underequipped to accomplish anything beyond eulogizing the loss of a hypothetical classical innocence he finds in Old Hollywood – which, for him, is inextricably tethered to a capitalistic aspirational narrative structure that defines human worth in terms of their ability to achieve – but Chazelle sure knows how to make you feel guilty for enjoying the act of him pleasuring himself. He’s making comfort food cinema, and if you look beside the classicist pretensions and highfalutin Old School airs, he has an impeccably-tuned receptacle for showing off, a 24-karat audience-appeasement apparatus on his hands. I suspect he will never be a frugal director, but he knows how to turn gaudy into glamorous.
That said, I feel rather sickly that I found La La Land pleasant, if little more, and the film’s queasy racial politics are only one symptom of a larger syndrome. Its much-criticized whitewashing is an issue: a collection of black jazz players are subtly mocked for trying to update jazz for the masses with synthesizers and sky-high electronica hooks, contrasted with the white protagonist who preserves jazz’s soul or whatever. But the film’s sympathy with Sebastian is emblematic of a substantially more misguided whitewashing of jazz at an aesthetic level, which is in turn symptomatic of the film’s spic-and-span, desultory engagement with not only racial politics but anything resembling real stylistic or mental strife.
Jazz music was (and may still be) an always fluctuating present-tense negotiation that filtered the momentary and ephemeral animus of any given room and collective into bursts of insecure, unsteady, deliriously rickety inspiration. It was music on the edge of sanity, the limit of control, always daring to slip into gleeful chaos. That kind of haltingly mesmeric, cunningly misleading, mercurial variation cannot be compartmentalized into the corporate narrative strategy of achievement or aspiration that Chazelle has. Jazz is too precarious, given to the sublime energy of the staggered moment. It privileges feeding on the friction of the scene, the uncertain energy of any note’s incompleteness, adapting one’s goal by the second. It favored liquidity, seeing each fellow bandmate as a conundrum to work with and work around, a competitor and a community-member all at once. Jazz is not only not conservative, but it lacks any spectrum to codify it on. It interrupts and dismantles that process, continually reinventing itself not only in the long-form sense over the years but within each song. Jazz’s roots run deep too, partially drawing from black communities’ persistent adaptation in a world of oppression, their historical development of alternate notions of life beyond capitalistic goal-orientation. This capitalistic goal-orientation failed them, subjugated them, persecuted them, so, in a feat of agency, they had to improvise.
Content to tidy-up every burnt end and jagged edge of its look and feel, La La Land simply misconstrues this entire ethos. The fact that Chazelle treats the commercially-minded types as laughable bogeyman assaulted with the film’s barely-sublimated contempt masked as genial irony only casts the film’s own desire to please everyone in a more disturbingly ironic light. It all but clarifies how hopelessly stubborn and pitifully self-contradictory La La Land actually is. The film Chazelle has made is exactly what he mocks. It is a kindred spirit of the synthetic opulence of the comforting modern music he clearly detests. His film just locates comfort in a different era of equally sand-blasted music, as free from stains (and the throbbing memory of chains) as the music he accuses the black musicians of hocking. His film recasts music in a woefully sanitized idiom.
Now, yes, jazz has always drawn from a well of modernization and change, so the film can always defend itself with the claim that its own variant of composed music does bleed the spirit of accommodation and perpetual alteration. But jazz, at its best, adapted radically. La La Land adapts in a reactionary way, to a regressive try-and-try-and-try again belief-system. Jazz disarmed classical musical structures. La La Land enforces structures. At least Chazelle’s Whiplash was an Eisensteinian assault on the senses. It was obvious and more spirited than thematically nuanced, but it demonstrated a dialectic mind that was willing to interact with the idea that Chazelle’s stylistic perfectionism could be not only faulty but morally bankrupt and indebted to a Euro-centric strain of capitalistic goal-orientation. That film did not have the courage to commit to a radical indictment of that ethos – its finale was basically a cop-out – but La La Land is entirely unwilling to even imply that a career can be anything other than a divine vision of purpose. Everyone who compromises their dreams is, in essence, a sinner; everyone should set a path and define their life accordingly. Chazelle’s moral worldview is almost perversely obsessed with fetishizing the male-coded, capitalist-adjacent belief that rewards are for the taking if one lives only in order to mobilize and cultivate their own inner-greatness. In Whiplash’s case, this extends to accepting a sado-masochistic student-teacher relationship and heroicizing the primal, virile, achieving male, which, if making Whiplash somewhat more morally specious, only has the effect of making La La Land even more banal, uncommitted, and hopelessly neutral by comparison.
To frame it another way. Jazz is all interpretive, all about reconsidering the mood, theme, or texture of a musical piece. La La Land, comparatively, is an Old Hollywood quotation with, essentially, nothing new not to bring to its forebears. La La Land doesn’t re-interpret anything, it simply reduces. It just brings us back to older sheet music, an aged rule-set, treating its forebears not as canvases to work with but prisons to commit to unerringly. The problem is that trying to smash so many filmic allusions together so haphazardly reveals that La La Land doesn’t actually understand these films. It wants to caucus with these films – walking on eggshells all the while – when it should be rumbling with them. But because this modern effort is way too comfortable with itself to do anything illicit, these other films are reduced to unknowing hosts for the film’s parasitic ego. La La Land invokes the spirit of a dialogue with these films, but it exists perpetually in monologue.
Sure, each scene rolls out a trick or two, but it’s always in service of shoring up its own style rather than reconceiving it or upsetting it. The latter requires genuine courage. The only thing La La Land brings in the way of courage is a half-hearted admission that women’s careers should be validated as well. Compared to Singin’ in the Rain, Chazelle’s framing is much more likely to center Mia and the cinematography more welcoming to aestheticizing Mia’s desires than an American film from the ‘50s, or even a French film from the ‘60s, would have.
But to what end? That kind of self-pleasing liberalism only feels like a faux-egalitarian mask in service of an extremely superficial, surface-oriented film. In order to fly, this kind of thing requires a lithe, cunningly diaphanous nature, a dreamlike sensation of being able to float off into the ether at any moment. But La La Land is so assured in its value structure that it has no room for liquidity. It is self-congratulatory without even a wink of self-effacing grace, too interested in presiding as master of ceremonies over its own entry into the film canon so that the induction goes smoothly and everyone gets their photo-op. The aesthetic is an at-times phenomenally convincing secondhand approximation of desire denatured by the totalizing, monolithic nature of its taxidermied vision. Everyone’s favorite all-purpose adjective “charm” is here to wash away the trouble and save the day for the film’s fans, but for me, La La Land is a well-mounted mausoleum to old pleasures rather than an effusive cascade of new ones. It is sublime in its artifice, but it is so desperate to feel authentic that it smothers itself.
Score: 6/10 (I know, I know, the score doesn’t match the tone of the review … but it’s really pretty nonsense, and I’m as susceptible as anyone else to trickery. Also, I suspect it is possible, although not probable, that someone might mount a defense that the film is self-reflective about its own complicity in what it gets wrong, that it sees Sebastian as a fundamental hypocrite. And I do not mean the one or two scenes where it lazily critiques him for his hypocrisy, just so the film can cover all bases, only to back-peddle and endorse him yet again.)