La La Land

La La Land ★★½

Film #72 that was recommended to me -- feel free to add to the list! (Recommended by yondu4)

(v2.0, as I tried to make the point about race a little more clear in response to comments)

Earth rotates around its axis once more, and it's time again for me to disrespect a movie that most people love. It's not easy being a joyless contrarian with bad tastes. Nonetheless, this just about went how I was afraid it might go. I enjoy old musicals -- haven't seen a ton of them, but I'm not totally unaware, and it feels nicely parallel that I nearly started last year with Singin' in the Rain, which blew me away. It's obvious Chazelle loves these old movies too, and maybe in some ways they truly don't make 'em like they used to, but there's an unshakable feeling of imitation throughout this whole movie. It's a copy of a copy of a copy, a faded old tape that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was put on one time too many and it's just not fun to watch anymore.

There's a conflict within this film centering on a group that wants to add to and advance jazz, offending the sensibilities of Gosling's character, who only wishes to adhere to tradition and imitate the musicians he loves. Midway through the film, the leader of said group (John Legend's character) lays out the obvious truth before him: every one of these musicians he adores was a pioneer, setting out and making something brand new. Emulating them is at its very core the antithesis of honoring them. This argument carries a lot of weight because, well, if you ask me, it's flat out correct. There's room for multiple forms of jazz to exist of course, but I'm going to listen to the originals or find the guys doing something new; why settle for imitation?

So what does the film do with this point? Well, pretty soon it entirely sidelines the character who made that compelling argument (the whole film actually has an issue with dumping characters before they can really do much), and allows Mr. Traditionalist to prove that there can be an audience for his style. It's obvious anyway, how could La La Land not fall on the side of traditionalism when the whole movie is itself aping old movies? Think about Guy Maddin, who has made a whole career out of taking film's past and reinventing it. That's what this movie could have been, rather than a parade of references painted on a romantic arc that follows the aforementioned The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to a tee. Be careful putting pictures of Ingrid Bergman on the screen for too long lest I remember I could be watching Ingrid Bergman.

I can't avoid addressing race here, but I'm overall a little disinterested in dwelling too much on it, because it feels incidental. The truth is, I'm not convinced this movie cares about jazz. Jazz is a quirky little subject with a relatively small but dedicated fanbase for our semi-unlikable hipster to obsess over. Does it need to be jazz? Hell no. It's basically a stand-in for lamenting people's attitudes towards old film styles without being so on-the-nose... except for the moments where Chazelle can't resist indulging himself and gives his characters an interest in old movies, anyway. It could be any music; it probably doesn't even have to be music. It's just a flippant attitude towards the specifics that ends up a bit racist because it doesn't meaningfully engage with jazz's history despite making gestures as if it had. By all accounts Chazelle seems to genuinely love the music, but it all feels so surface level, like just bits of Wikipedia trivia. Maybe it's because the jazz is drowned out by how loudly he is screaming that he loves old movies. Anything in the world would look understated next to that.

Meanwhile, I don't think others are totally wrong to see a bit of a "white savior" angle here, though I would wager on that being more of a result of an underdeveloped script than intentional. The film has a real fondness for purism and forgets to let John Legend's character do a little more than make his one point. The intended takeaway seems unlikely to be the saving of jazz, but a man staying true to himself, and more time for Legend's character to be right in his own way would make that clearer. Whether Gosling is ultimately a savior or not, the whiteness of the leads is more of a reflection of the way society as a whole is racist. If you're casting "an actor," you usually end up with a white person. In most cases black people get prominent roles in films when a "black actor" is specifically called for. Whiteness is treated as default. Their casting just feels like a naïve assumption that you could take a large part of specifically black history and ignore the blackness, making the movie "not political" without realizing that that in itself, in regards to this subject, will ultimately be a political statement. Chazelle has some level of fault for not being aware enough, but the real problem is the culture he's grown up in combined with the added stakes when dealing with the history of an oppressed group.

All that aside, I just don't feel much. There's not the same energy or passion that musicals live and die on. Obviously many disagree, and I am genuinely pleased that they have this movie (on the condition that they don't show up in my comments section to tell me lies about institutional racism). I see a complete absence of chemistry between Gosling and Stone, and little to like about their characters. I wouldn't say I had an awful time -- there were eye rolling moments and I wasn't into the music much, but it is beautifully bright and colorful. The sort of imagined ending segment is pretty magical, though it was undermined by how little I could bring myself to care about the characters. The movie is acceptable, sure, yet I could be watching the movies Chazelle wants it to be.

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