La La Land has the distinction of sharing the record for the most Academy Award nominations, fourteen, with Titanic. La La Land swept up at the Golden Globes this year. La La Land is the current favorite to win at this year’s ceremonies as well because of all the other acclaim its swept up. While the nominees for Best Picture this year all have their distinguishing characteristics and their statements about history, humanity, and society, there is this jazzy musical that’s not really about people, it’s about ideas and artifice. It is an enjoyable film, certainly unique, is a great homage and commentary about Los Angeles and Hollywood, but doesn’t quite have the historical and social significance of some of the other nominees.
Director Damien Chazelle gave us the fantastic film Whiplash a few years earlier, so it is no surprise to see that La La Land takes the ideas and history of Jazz music to a much grander level. From the opening musical number on a Los Angeles freeway, La La Land is a consistently bright and colorful look at the City of Angels with an active Jazz soundtrack. The ‘story’ is about a Jazz pianist, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and an aspiring actress, Mia (Emma Stone), who fall in love and each work to fulfill their dreams for artistic success in Hollywood. The relationship between these two characters provides a narrative structure, but the movie is not really about them—it’s about Los Angeles. This could account for some of the film’s massive acclaim: Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood. La La Land is no more masturbatory than Singin’ in the Rain or The Artist. Both great films – both love stories about Hollywood. La La Land has some amazing visuals, beautiful and contemporary costumes, wonderful music, and some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in awhile; but, at its heart, it is just another Hollywood love story.
Los Angeles is garish and shallow—it is as Sebastian says in one scene: “a place that worships everything and values nothing.” This garishness is explored through the excessively celebratory imagery. While there is variety in Los Angeles, shown through a diverse supporting cast, these aren’t real people. Mia is a barista—but somehow lives in a wonderfully large and lavishly decorated multi-room apartment in Hollywood; something NO barista in Los Angeles would ever be able to afford. The same may be said about the struggling Jazz pianist in his artistic flat. The fashions and lifestyles on display in La La Land are for a very specific class of Los Angeles citizens; because when we think of what defines Hollywood, we only speak of one elitist and mostly white social strata in an otherwise diverse Los Angeles.
While Hollywood is a community of people that “worship everything and value nothing,” there is still an undeniable magic of cinema. During the opening song, “Another Day of Sun,” a character sings:
“Summer: Sunday nights
We’d sink into our seats
Right as they dimmed out all the lights
A Technicolor world made out of music and machine
It called me to be on that screen
And live inside each scene”
It aptly expresses the draw of film, the love and nostalgia people have for Hollywood. I share the same nostalgic love for this kind of masturbatory fare as Hollywood residents- there was a magic to Hollywood that has been mostly lost, and may never come back. There are several recreations of iconic moments and shots from classic film present in La La Land that really do make one pine for the lost secrets that made movies like Rebel Without a Cause, Funny Face, and Singin’ in the Rain such timeless classics. Given the current fare of mainstream Hollywood, we all do pine for the consistent quality and memorable experience of those earlier times. It’s saddening to think that Hollywood nostalgia films generations from now may, perhaps, be loving homages to Transformers and comic book movies. We still get quality films every year, from Hollywood or Independents, but they are hidden figures compared to the blockbusters shoved down our throat at every minute, blockbusters that do not hold a flame to the “We’re actually trying to do something good here!” of the long-lost Hollywood.
La La Land reflects Damien Chazelle’s passions for nostalgic Hollywood and Jazz. Two of his own loves combined into one beautiful movie. I loved the film because I share the same passions. Does it deserve Best Picture? It’s good for very different reasons, and I feel that the films that really bring up social issues that change worldviews deserve it more. However, La La Land certainly does excel in the tech categories such as Production Design, Costuming, Cinematography, etc.
La La Land is also the whitest of all the nominees (in both demographics and culture). It’s up against three different films about civil rights and black identity (Hidden Figures, Fences, Moonlight), so it’ll be interesting to see if there is any kind of #OscarsSoWhite controversy that kicks up again if La La Land sweeps the awards.