Watching La La Land is something of an experience going in, but it quickly became difficult to sit through for me.
Featuring stunning cinematography and beautiful music right from the opening scene, even as something described as “positive”, “joyous”, and “uplifting”, I quickly became detached as I was asked to identify with a sense of nostalgia I didn’t have over a straight romance and romanticized version of early Hollywood.
The closest comparison I would say La La Land relates to is 500 Days of Summer, despite upending some of the tropes that the other film used. La La Land shares the perspective of both leads and ends on a note of both characters moving on from their relationship in the past, while 500 Days is ultimately a very negative one-sided story and even more cliché collection of heterosexual tropes. But what they share is a romantic romp across LA, both using seasons as structural points of the story.
The film focuses a lot on the leads Mia and Sebastian longing for earlier years of LA and the entertainment industry, her being an aspiring actress and him being a jazz pianist. There are no real obstacles between them at the beginning of the film when they first meet besides a few brief instances of misunderstanding, and they quickly enter a relationship that makes up most of the film. With this, I felt any investment I had in the film drain out of me, as I watched the two of them skitter across famous locations in the city in public declarations of their love.
In one of the most diverse cities with one of the biggest LGBT populations in the country, the film is choosing to make these two the center of the story. Surrounding them is Sebastian’s sister and black husband, along with a few other small roles like John Legend as Sebastian’s friend from high-school turned famous musician. Geoff Nelson for Paste Magazine said it best in describing the whiteness of the cast with the issue of Keith being displayed as the sellout of jazz for trying to make the genre marketable while Sebastian as its savior and traditionalist. He describes that the film’s desire to return to the past is only something that Sebastian and Mia could idealize, “If seeing Gosling and Stone tap dance in the Hollywood Hills tickles something deep in some viewers, perhaps it’s worth investigating the roots of that feeling and its supposed universality. Quite simply: The past represents liberation for one group, a horror show for another.”
At one point in the film, Mia and Sebastian go to the famous Griffith Observatory and dance their way into the stars in a dream sequence, both the characters and the film reflecting on the classic Hollywood film Rebel Without A Cause, which they had seen earlier on their first date at a retro cinema. But that film is also one of the most iconic cases of LGBT history in film, featuring the industry’s first gay teenager on screen, Plato, who gets shot and is zipped up in a bodybag by his ambiguously best friend Jim. Actor Sal Manio, James Dean, and the director Nicholas Rey were all bisexual, in a film brimming with subtext on masculinity and sexuality, made in an era of The Motion Picture Production Code, a method of censorship including killing off characters with gay subtext or leaving them in tragic situations. In fact, most of the footage that takes place inside the observatory takes place between Jim and Plato. Is this what straight people think is fun to do on a first date, watch a film where a gay teen gets wheeled away to a morgue? Here, Mia and Sebastian are longing for a film bearing such tragedy and history as if it belongs to them, while their story doesn’t belong to us.
Identifying with other people is something constantly asked of LGBT people and people of color, but rarely the other way around. There’s a blank slate that has to be universal for everyone, and others are just niche experiences for limited viewing. An ex of mine loved the film 500 Days of Summer, and was a very positive and romantic individual. I didn’t love it, and frequently wasn’t like that. He lived in LA with his Latino family and had visited the famous Angels Knoll bench from the film multiple times, though I never got to visit anywhere in LA with him. When he visited me in New York one year, where we went to some famous locations, we still got ugly stares as we walked down the street or at Coney Island holding hands. Watching this film, I kept wondering how nice it was for Mia and Sebastian to go to these places and do these things, even when people weren’t around, without worrying about other people. Moreover, how nice it was for them to be in a film like this at all.
At the end of the film, it jumps ahead five years and the world is still the same relatively-timeless modern world it was before. Obviously made before the outcome of the election, but it bears no connection to the real world. Sebastian is scraping by, but accomplishes his dream, and Mia has climbed the Hollywood hierarchy. It doesn’t have to be be “about” politics obviously, but its decisions are political. Imagine if it featured a black, Latino or Asian leads (not played by infamous half-Asian Emma Stone) and was a gay relationship (not like Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling starring in their third movie together), like LA is full of, or who exist anywhere anyway, or done anything daring or different; it wouldn’t have been made.
Despite its rich cultural setting and medium, the film is in a vacuum. Not just in its cast and story, but right down to its very existence.
Films like La La Land are stories that we don’t get to have about ourselves. Not only does it romanticize the past, which I feel is something that could have deeper meaning with a script change featuring different characters reimagining the future for themselves and making it their own, but it’s a very fun and uplifting film. Late last year, the miracle that is Moonlight was released, a very tender but dark depiction of the life of a gay, poor black man. Movies like Moonlight are needed in the industry, and characters in those stories don’t get to have the kind of experience that these two have in La La Land, nor some of the people in the audience watching it. Perhaps the closest thing right now recently is The Get Down, but that’s just one thing and isn’t the same.
In one scene of the film where Mia is preparing for her one woman play she’s worried about people finding it “too nostalgic,” to which Sebastian replies, “Fuck ’em,” which pretty clearly states the film’s intentions right there.
La La Land hasn’t quite gotten the backlash that would be necessary for it to not win a Golden Globe or Academy Award, and it’s also about the industry itself, much like The Artist and other films that have done critically well, so it will likely win. Even if it didn’t, it would spawn more films like it, and in a few years it’s likely we’ll have something else we can compare to 500 Days of Summer instead of something inspired by Moonlight, or something that builds off of it.
Most of these criticism aren’t specific to this film, they can be made of most films, and might not bother you when watching it. But La La Land is a movie about movies, a work of art about art. It’s a beautifully produced film, but for everything I liked about it left another different sinking feeling in my chest. One wonders how long it will take for a movie like this to be about someone other then the people it idolizes.