La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

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I mean, let’s be clear: it is not necessary to hate La La Land in order to love Moonlight. It makes total sense that it was nominated in many categories throughout awards season, including the Oscars. Neither of those statements, however, speak to La La Land being a good film. It’s a fine film, eminently watchable once you get past the first couple of truly grating numbers, Ryan Gosling’s piano is impressive enough that we may forgive his singing, and it may have grabbed me at several moments, but it never once held me.

People are starting to find the postmodern genre flick, constantly referencing cult classics, increasingly obnoxious. Even I had to put my foot firmly down whilst watching The Hateful Eight, and I’ve given Tarantino pass after pass over the years. It surprises me, therefore, that La La Land‘s “love letter to Hollywood” schtick has been so celebrated. Considering its release during the Brexit/Trump era, I can’t help but think of the 1974 MGM musical compilation film That’s Entertainment! and its piteous tagline “Boy, do we need it now.” Certainly, there’s an affective seduction at the heart of La La Land but I do feel the need to stress the manipulative quality implicit in that observation. Tarantino’s own aesthetic at least allows for hidden gems: you will genuinely enjoy his films more if you do seek out the often semi-obscure B-movies being referenced with varying degrees of subtlety throughout. La La Land, on the other hand, makes unmistakeable-by-design nods towards exceptionally well-known and well-loved classics and yet never exploits their recognisability to the extent of entering into any depth of analysis.

Indeed, most cynically, Damien Chazelle & Co. seem to rely on the general audience’s lack of knowledge about either films or music, which brings us on to the question of jazz. Does La La Land have a racial problem with regard to jazz music and white saviourism? Undoubtedly it does. And yet, for my white, jazz loving money’s worth (which, admittedly, may not be worth much at all), it’s not something we need take all that seriously, because La La Land‘s relationship with jazz is so utterly surface-level, it doesn’t risk teaching anyone anything about it at all, either racist and incorrect, or gospel truth. Jazz is little more than the mcguffin for Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) to mansplain to Mia (Emma Stone) throughout the narrative. It could have been replaced with oldskool techno, heavy metal, opera, and the effect would have been precisely the same. It’s not, after all, like much of the score even has that much to do with jazz – certainly the type Sebastian is interested in – it really just, much like in Whiplash, acts as the catalyst for the extreme gender problem both films seem to reveal about their writer/director.

Jazz music is a serious white concern for serious white men who, for the sake of its continued existence, must not be distracted – let alone criticised – by any woman. Both films seemingly follow the logic of Foucault’s description of neoliberalism to the letter, stressing the need for ruthless micromanagement and the absolute discardability of personal relationships for the acquirement of human capital. Perhaps most interesting is Chazelle’s desire to have his cake and eat it too by also acknowledging the necessity for amoral situational adaptability in the quest for human capital (whether sustaining abuse in Whiplash or – at least temporarily – “selling out” in La La Land) whilst still romanticising the nature of integrity, left entirely abstract by the end of the film because being “principled” is more important as a general personality quirk is worth so much more to Chazelle than ever detailing what these principles are. It’s entirely reasonable for many people to state that, no, Keith (John Legend) is by no means a sell out; acid jazz etc etc is a generic tradition in its own right and has been since the 1980s – more or less the only thing Sebastian told us / Mia about jazz is that it has improvisation, and he clearly is allowed to improvise onstage with that band, too. If Sebastian truly is as horrified as he seems, the first time he sees The Messengers employing synthesizers in a jazz setting, he’s going to freak out when he learns about Herbie Hancock’s later work. Clearly, these concepts of “integrity” etc are decided by one person and one alone: Damien Chazelle. If you don’t agree with his worldview, your enjoyment of La La Land is instantly going to be limited.

“Integrity” and, indeed, “passion” are the codewords for – from the romantic perspective – that which allows you to “achieve your dreams” and – from the capitalist perspective – that which allows you the most easy access to human capital. “Integrity” and “passion” are codewords for individualism and whiteness. Despite the intersubjective, often democratic, nature of jazz performance, about which Sebastian speaks at length – the type of thing that allowed Thelonious Monk multiple times in concert to stop playing piano and just dance to the sound of his sidemen – Chazelle’s interpretation of jazz always has but one most important player and that player is always the protagonist. La La Land routinely made me think of Whiplash‘s ending, in which the protagonist, who has never once met the band before, high-jacks the entire performance for the sake of an alienating if impressive solo, after the more-or-less antagonist of the piece had moments before decided to ruin the show for all of them, just to humiliate him. The solipsistic – not to mention white – gall of that scene drives the whole of La La Land, no matter how much more subtly, and that strikes me as the crux of its white, capitalist cynicism.

Apparently, Chazelle’s desire when making La La Land was to “have something which had the magic of musicals, but also had the texture and the grit of real life.” So, just like Cabaret, Chicago, All That Jazz, New York New York, Rent… As I said, no matter how well put together this film is – and it certainly is – La La Land is a duplicitous exercise. It demands you praise its referential nature, whilst ignoring its unoriginality. It demands you praise its affect, whilst ignoring the working class / POC labour and genius upon which it depends. It demands you praise its romanticism, whilst ignoring its capitalism.

Huh, maybe it is a genuine love-letter to Hollywood and the music industry, after all…

**1/2