With apologies to Pauline Kael1: how do you make a happy movie in America without being jumped on? Either America has forgotten how to make uplifting films so deeply that a work like La La Land is, despite its uplifting façade, only a symptom of this malaise, or we have forgotten how to critically appraise such films without competing for the deepest and hardest cuts. Or maybe both. Such a form of memory loss is certainly appropriate for a film that takes a dreamy, old-fashioned nickname for Los Angeles as its title: ‘La-La Land’, a dismissive, half-joking swipe at a part of America that might seem to enjoy existing in another state of mind. Los Angeles itself, as argued by Norman Klein, is in a constant state of forgetting: for the city “was imagined long before it was built,”2 while “the final version was a whitewash, or the conciliation, the ad that went public”.3

La La Land the film, like the city that inspired it, also feels deeply imagined. It is happy to take the Los Angeles mythology in its song titles – “City of Stars”, “Another Day of Sun” – and perhaps more importantly, in its flip-side obsessions with forgetting and remembering. This is a film that furiously memorialises a raft of musicals that the average filmgoer today may not have necessarily seen (such as Jacques Demy’s 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) while speechifying on the merits of jazz like Ken Burns in fast forward. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) repeatedly returns to a historic jazz-joint-turned-tapas-joint, bringing Mia (Emma Stone) along for the jazzsplaining ride, yet this is ‘La La Land’ itself: both the overwriting of history and the mythologising of it form crucial halves of “the ad that went public”. Or, as Sebastian tells Mia, “They worship everything and they value nothing,”. Being a deeply nostalgic film, La La Land is of course also a mausoleum to the truly irrecoverable: a heavy “nostalgia for the present”.4 As critics have rightly pointed out, La La Land is interested in an alternate history, where – just like the imagined Hollywood-ending performed for us towards the film’s conclusion – neither jazz nor the glamour of Old Hollywood has gone away.5

In this sense La La Land embodies this alternate universe as much as it lusts after it, and it has been criticised for these aesthetic debts: “La La Land ultimately feels bloated by its references, by the mad rush to imitate all Chazelle’s inspirations,” writes Christos Tsiolkas.6 Yet for all its obvious nostalgia, surely the most obviously retro thing about La La Land is its general good humour and colour, which despite a melancholic ending is still largely played out as life-affirming. In his documentary series The Story of Film, Mark Cousins describes what he calls “the bauble of Hollywood: shiny and romantic, with its promise of escapism and perfection”,7 and this is the form of cinema that La La Land seems most drawn to. It is also what makes it an anachronism because since at least the 2000s, Hollywood’s biggest critical and commercial hits have become less shiny and romantic and more grim and calculatedly ‘gritty’. The contemporary superhero, for example, is at his best self-loathing, proud, and relentlessly fractious with allies. Singing in the streets – even in the guise of homage – about the sun in Los Angeles seems like wish-fulfillment from another galaxy.

La La Land

Initially a critical hit – and nominated for fourteen Academy Awards and winner of six (almost seven!) – La La Land now seems likely to suffer the fate of most other life-affirming Hollywood hits, from It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) to Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) to Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) to Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) to The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011): critiqued as too light, too fluffy, too insubstantial, too apolitical, too reactionary, too nostalgic. Yet these are the films that ask us to delight in happy fantasy: “here’s to the ones who dream,” sings Emma Stone late in the film. We have so thoroughly expunged the era of naivety from Hollywood cinema that critics can now quickly turn on any film that suggests a return. The most ‘retro’ thing about Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015) was its immediate and unironic sense of fun and comradery, yet critics tended to focus on its more superficial similarities to the original. Indeed, it is telling that director Damien Chazelle has not yet received the same depth of criticism reserved for La La Land when approaching similar themes – artistic sacrifice, musical tradition, and conflicting relationships – in the unrelentingly joyless context of men shouting at each other in Whiplash (2014).

So how do you make a happy movie in America without getting jumped on? In an era of conflict as a ubiquitous tonal palette, the easiest option has been parody, homage, and nostalgia. Barefaced joy is at its most acceptable when in the guise of memory. These are, of course, films largely about Hollywood itself, or that continue nostalgic franchises established in earlier eras. Yet these are also factors that allow La La Land to be unusual for a film made in 2016. La La Land is an unusual combination: it is original (in the sense that it’s not a sequel, part of any franchise, or an adaptation); recognisably human (it is set on planet Earth, in the present day, and features people who to some degree have relatable life experiences – they struggle to pay the rent, they wonder about what makes their lives meaningful, they have fun); it is not overly concerned with grimness of any kind or men in conflict as the primary source of drama (no posturing superheroes here); and it is brightly lit, colourful, not animated, and generally about happy people.

This is, of course, an incredibly low bar by which to mark a film as a success and I’m hardly suggesting that we adopt this criteria as anything other than a way to mark La La Land’s unusualness. Contrasting La La Land to the finalists for Best Picture this year is illustrative in this sense. Most of the other nominees are about the trauma of the past and memory in family contexts such as Arrival (Denis Villeneuve), Lion (Garth Davis), Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan), Fences (Denzel Washington) or historical ones like Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson), Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi), the latter of which comes closest of these to being a celebratory film. Taking instead the box office as our benchmark means finding instead mournful and self-serious fantasy as almost the sole non-animated genre like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards), Captain America: Civil War (Anthony and Joe Russo), Batman v Superman (Zack Snyder), and Suicide Squad (David Ayer).  In the era of Trump, Brexit, and the catastrophe of anthropogenic climate change, we have come for your dreams, too.

La La Land

Dream-filled films have not been altogether banished, however, and if you squint, you can make an argument that the last five years have in fact seen a sustained attempt at even a musical revival: Into The Woods (Rob Marshall, 2014), The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012), Les Misérables (Tom Hooper, 2012), Frozen (Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, 2013), and Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore, 2013) prove that La La Land is not quite the anomaly that it might seem. Romcoms and teen movies also certainly continue to exist in the less ‘worthy’ corners of Hollywood. Yet at least in terms of at the box office, the Academy, and the long-term critical consensus, these films are nevertheless broadly speaking out of fashion and when successful, are usually so in isolation. When it comes to La La Land, then, there is an obligation to figure out what might make the film appealing as well as problematic.

La La Land constructs an imaginary of both Los Angeles and of musicals, one that certainly has never existed, in the process building “the unremembered”.8 Movies make places, too, in other words. For Giuliana Bruno, the very idea of the city is inscribed in the “spatial imaginary”, as “a canvas to be imaged and imagined” by media.9 Cities are not just made of bricks and mortar, and Los Angeles perhaps even less so than most. Although an imaginary like La La Land’s may be illusory, hostility and ridicule are not automatically useful tools. As Klein reminds us, although such social imaginaries may be “extremely cruel (and) very pleasant to attack… that will easily miss the mark. It is important to see social imaginaries as very practical as well. Venomous or not, they are clinical tools”.10 Through its vivid remembering and forgetting, La La Land tells us much. So what does it remember, and what does it forget?

Remembering and Forgetting Los Angeles

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: La La Land does erase several crucial things that makes it far more politically reactive. Most egregiously, it forgets that jazz has historically been pioneered by black Americans and colonised by white men, including the ironically named Paul Whiteman who was crowned the ‘King of Jazz’ by the media in the 1920s over a pantheon of more original black artists. Whiteman spent much of the year 1929 in Los Angeles making The Jazz King (John Murray Anderson, 1930), which features both extraordinarily lavish musical staging (at one point, Whiteman’s orchestra performs inside a giant teal grand piano) and a cartoon of Whiteman travelling to Africa in order to charm a Lion into saying ‘Mammy’. Despite this era of “rampant expropriation, the jazz revolution paid dividends in the Black Metropolises,”11 and can be considered not just a historical articulation of African American identity and culture, but also a contemporary site for the “struggle for institutional space and recognition” of African American cultural politics.12 La La Land allows Sebastian to venerate his black idols and hear Keith (John Legend) advocate for a jazz that accommodates and leads the historical present, yet it cannot and does not acknowledge his own whiteness. At its worst, La La Land is another The Jazz King, with another White-man taking control of jazz’s narrative.

La La Land also seems keen to forget about Los Angeles’ origins as a Spanish, and then Mexican city. With a population that is 48% Hispanic or Latino – and 11% Asian, and 9% Black or African American13La La Land’s mostly-white vision of Los Angeles seems imagined in some fairly negligent ways. If only for these reasons alone, La La Land surely deserves lesser acclaim than other Oscar lauded films, such as Moonlight and Hidden Figures that depict a more accurate America both today and in the past.

Less remarked about the film, however, are the ways that it does also try to remember and even live in some form of the present, which rudely intrudes into Sebastian and Mia’s nostalgic reveries on more than one occasion. La La Land’s clever soundscapes – probably the film’s strongest formal element – reflexively bleeds diegetic sound into the musical numbers, with aggressive car horns even tuned to the right key at one point. ‘A Lovely Night’, for example, is claimed by composer Justin Hurwitz as the film’s most old-fashioned musical number: “in some places, (it) really does sound like a Fred and Ginger song.” 14 Yet even this antique fantasy is deliberately interrupted by Mia’s mobile phone, as though Emma Stone has forgotten to put her phone on silent for this alleged cinema of nostalgia. The would-be romantic screening of Rebel Without A Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) has a frame caught in the projector, causing the idolised past to literally burn as the result of old technology that has erroneously been remembered as better than it was.

La La Land

A Lovely Night

Indeed, Sebastian is undoubtedly presented on some level as a loser from start to finish. Gosling’s naturally-heroic performance goes some way to muddying the waters here, but La La Land clearly presents Sebastian as a character with scant ability to self-reflect and change. “Whatever. Tell yourself what you want to know,” Bill (J.K. Simmons) says to Sebastian early in the film. Though Mia learns from failure and changes as a person throughout the film, Sebastian ultimately has little character arc to speak of and instead serves as a catalyst for Mia at several points (something that has rightly been critiqued as fairly sexist). Yet Sebastian is obviously constrained by his nostalgia and obsession with the past, and not only does not grow as a human but loses the love of his life in the process. Though we admire his good looks and skillful piano playing, I do not believe that audiences would want to be in Sebastian’s position by the conclusion of the film. He is left with little except his backwards-looking artistic integrity.

Like most things in La La Land, the music itself also provides plenty of ammunition for both those who want to rave and rant about it. The songs themselves are rarely much to write home about: ‘City of Stars’ in particular traces out the same naïve minor seventh chord that every high school student who has heard of the blues has jammed on, yet it also somehow was destined to win the Oscar regardless. . My biggest problem is with the singing, and not so much with Gosling or Stone’s abilities as with the light, breathy style they’ve been asked to perform with. Such a choice is emblematic of the most uncomfortable mergers of past and present in La La Land, as for both historical and technological reasons, the musical is usually associated with the diametrically opposed singing style – that is, ‘belting’.15 Gosling and Stone’s breathy performances are by contrast more modern and conversational, as well as being ahistorical compared to the rest of the film. Such a choice might also help paper over these non-professional singers, but by choosing to remember a present-day vocal aesthetic (such a style is not out of place in either today’s pop charts or more idiosyncratic indie contexts) La La Land loses energy and lacks emotional conviction as a musical.

In contrast, the musical score is much more successful in managing a contemporary twist on a familiar pattern. La La Land’s musical strategy of merging a highly-arranged, rigidly romantic orchestra with a looser, more improvisatory jazz band is something Michel Legrand pioneered in scores like Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, 1968) and is highly unusual today. Composer Hurwitz is upfront about this inspiration: it is “an approach I took from Michel Legrand but, again, compositionally and orchestrationally, I hope it feels more modern and like my own thing”.16 The non-vocal musical themes similarly work to remember and forget, like the film itself. ‘Mia and Sebastian’s Theme’ in particular functions as both a piano waltz with adept chordal voicings and melodic improvisation, and a lush, romantic orchestral waltz – even transitioning between the two for the key Planetarium scene.

Ultimately, the tense relationship between past and present evident in La La Land is presented in not just a nostalgic façade, but in one that is unafraid of taking some delight in lightness at a cinematic moment where that is unusual. The critiques of the film are more often valid than not, but they also just equally as often fall back on predictable notes that almost certainly land more easily thanks to La La Land’s happy-to-dream disposition. After all, we only have to look to the lyrics of La La Land’s final song to find what might be the film’s epitaph: “Here’s to the ones who dream,” sings Mia in ‘Audition’, “Foolish as they may seem.” By daring to dream, La La Land almost certainly leaves itself open to looking foolish – and maybe, to being jumped on in the process.

 

Endnotes

  1. Pauline Kael, “Bonnie and Clyde,” The New Yorker, October 21, 1967: p.147
  2. Norman Klein, A History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (New York and London: Verso, 1997), p. 27
  3. Norman Klein, A History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (New York and London: Verso, 1997), p. 3
  4. Fredric Jameson, “Nostalgia for the Present,” South Atlantic Quarterly 88, no. 2 (1989): pp. 517– 37
  5. Kelly Lawler, “Oscar nominations 2017: The case against ‘La La Land’,” USA Today, January 11 2017 http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2017/01/11/la-la-land-golden-globes-backlash/96360032/; Lee Tran Lam, ‘La La Land is a terrible film, but it will win Best Picture at the Oscars anyway,’ Sydney Morning Herald, January 6 2017 http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/la-la-land-is-a-terrible-film-but-it-will-win-best-picture-at-the-oscars-anyway-20170105-gtmpll.html; Amy Nicholson, “La La Land: City of Tap-Dancing Angels’, MTV News, December 7 2016, http://www.mtv.com/news/2961329/la-la-lands-emma-stone-ryan-gosling-review/; David Sims, ‘La La Land’s Double-Edged Nostalgia,’ The Atlantic, January 9 2017 https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/01/la-la-lands-double-edged-nostalgia/512351/
  6. Christos Tsiolkas, “Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Land,” The Saturday Paper, December 24, 2016, https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/2016/12/24/damien-chazelles-la-la-land/14824980004115
  7. Episode Two, ‘The Triumph of American Film’, 2011
  8. Norman Klein, A History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (New York and London: Verso, 1997), p. 11.
  9. Giuliana Bruno, “Construction Sites: Fabricating the Architectural Imaginary in Art” in Automated Cities: The Architectural Imaginary in Contemporary Art, Robin Clark, ed. (San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2009), p. 38
  10. Norman Klein, A History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (New York and London: Verso, 1997), p. 11.
  11. James N. Gregory, The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), p. 136.
  12. Herman Gray, Cultural Move : African Americans and the Politics of Representation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) p. 33
  13. United States Census Bureau, “Los Angeles (city), California,” Census, http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/0644000,06
  14. Kristen Romanelli, “Just a Song and Dance Man: Justin Hurwitz and the Fantasy of La La Land,” Film Score Monthly, 21.11 November 2016, http://www.filmscoremonthly.com/fsmonline/story.cfm?maID=5828&issueID=143&page=1.
  15. Joan Melton, Singing in Musical Theatre: The Training and Singing of Singers and Actors (New York, New York: Allworth Press, 2007): xiii
  16. Kristen Romanelli, “Just a Song and Dance Man: Justin Hurwitz and the Fantasy of La La Land,” Film Score Monthly, 21.11 November 2016, http://www.filmscoremonthly.com/fsmonline/story.cfm?maID=5828&issueID=143&page=1.

About The Author

Dan Golding is a lecturer in Media and Communications at Swinburne University. He is also a writer, a composer, and the co-author of Game Changers: From Minecraft to Misogyny, the Fight for the Future of Videogames with Leena van Deventer.