La La Land

La La Land ★★★★½

All the controversies around this year's Oscar contenders seem to be about whether the films are too indulgent of what they're depicting; does Scorsese go too easy on the Catholic church? Is Arrival too America-centric? Does Fences unfairly privilege fences over other, equally good forms of garden boundaries like walls or hedges? None of the films about big hot-button issues, though, have proved as divisive as La La Land. Race, religion, poverty, sexuality - all of these things we can take in our stride, but we're damned if we're going to sit here while Damien Chazelle glamourises jazz bores!

Reading some of the criticism - I recommend Sally and Aidan from the anti crowd - I do understand the issues. I thought Hadley Freeman's column on it was witty, where she laments that the film's hero Seb is the sort of person who patronises and cajoles women into liking jazz. That's a bit of an asshole thing to do. Having said that, if you replace "women" with "Millennials" and "jazz" with "the Bridget Jones books" or "Sex and the City" or "some piece-of-shit '80s teen movie", you basically have at least forty per cent of Hadley Freeman's written output. She even does it in the article where she's berating Seb for it, scolding Chazelle for implying A-ha's 'Take on Me' might be anything other than objectively perfect!

Well, playing 'Take on Me' in an '80s cover band might be Seb's idea of hell, but Seb is not actually Damien Chazelle. I'd argue that the way Chazelle introduces the song - blasting its synth riff out at the start of a party scene over a widescreen shot of a big blue sky - represents a kind of directorial counterargument, evidence that Chazelle does indeed understand its pleasures. If La La Land really was as completely aligned with Seb's perspective as Freeman's column argues, it would be terrible. But just as Chazelle's previous film, Whiplash, gave its most repulsive character a heavy share of the right viewpoints, La La Land allows Seb to be witty and passionate and artistically committed while also being kind of a jerk.

He's likeable enough - it's Ryan Gosling in Nice Guys screwball mode with added tap-dancing, how could he not be likeable? But look at where the film introduces and leaves him, look at how many of his beliefs are self-defeating and contradictory. He fetishises innovation and maverick spirit while also being obsessed with the past, he encourages Emma Stone's Mia to take any opportunity she gets while scorning almost every job he's offered. When he joins The Messengers, a modern jazz-pop fusion band, of course he hates every moment of it, but the argument his friend Keith makes about modernising jazz and keeping it relevant to audiences isn't actually wrong. Seb laments that jazz is dying, but actively opposes the resus attempt.

Keith, incidentally, is played by John Legend, whose real-life career offers a kind of extratextual authority to his opinions on making it in the music industry. He's also black, as are the rest of the Messengers other than Gosling, and I don't think it's unreasonable to read a level of racial commentary in here. Like a conservative columnist invoking Martin Luther King to denounce Black Lives Matter, Seb is wildly romantic about black art of the past but struggles to engage with it in the present. It is true that La La Land's main couple are white, and they didn't have to be. But I don't think it's blind about the limitations of Seb's white-guy jazz fandom, and one of the funniest scenes takes aim at Hollywood's appropriation of black culture ("No, Jamal. You be trippin'").

Chazelle has mentioned silent city symphonies as an influence on La La Land, and watching it I did wonder why people even bother to film cities other than Los Angeles. The opening moments sketch out a whole world taking place behind Seb and Mia, a world full of different people listening to different music. From then on they're lost in each other's story, but I do think the democracy and pluralism of that opening is important. La La Land's pleasures are many and mostly obvious; the luminous colours, the wonderfully structured score, the spectacle of Gosling and Stone doing comedy (as they should do, often). But it's not shallow. It has an ambiguity and a complexity that some might suggest is wasted on arguing over musical taste rather than politics or religion. To them, I'd say arguing about art is my religion.

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