La La Land (Damien Chazelle, USA, 2016)
At the end of the screening of La La Land that I saw, the audience’s need to applaud was palpable but only a few people managed to overcome their shyness.It’s not perfect but it is romantic and sad with many sequences that make one feel happy at the rhythm and the movement and the colour, like musicals should. The things one loves in musicals are often ineffable (the way Ryan Gosling ends his dance steps for example). Personally, if I’d had any guts myself, I would have started applauding after the duet at the beginning when Ryan and Emma first dance together so charmingly in front of that gorgeous LA skyline. It’s a lovely film.
The expected backlash is ridiculous, and building. I find it obnoxious because a) the film was a risk to make, on a tight budget, and it’s success in no way assured beforehand b) it seems anti-populist and anti-popular, echoing that old elitist self-delusion that anything that masses of people enjoy can’t possibly be any good c) there’s more than a hint of, I wouldn’t say misogyny but anti-feminine, anti-art, anti-pretty sentiment in that backlash, all which come across as macho whether it’s expressed by men or women. People have taken its 14 Academy Award Nominations as something of an affront: Is it 14 nominations good asked someone? Well firstly, what does that mean? And ultimately, who cares?
Then there are people who say they loved it but that it’s superficial, which has always been a charge against musicals. Others have snarkily argued that it’s the kind of pastiche our times deserve. As if pastiche is incapable of inciting feeling (that Jameson said so doesn’t mean he’s right) ; as if no depth is possible that isn’t conveyed by plot or words. Yet, when Richard Dyer wrote about entertainment and utopia in musicals, he also talked about the characteristics which expressed it (energy, community, intensity, abundance, transparency etc) being inherently in tension with their opposite (exhaustion, isolation, etc). Jonathan Rosenbaum beautiful expresses this dialectic in the film, which is also its main pull, by highlighting the sadness in it: ‘A fact about many of the greatest musicals (and greatest post-musicals, such as those of Jacques Demy that Damien Chazelle is so obviously emulating) that characteristically gets overlooked, which is how much the elation of song and dance is only half of a dialectic that also highlights failure, hopelessness, and defeat.’ This is very true of La La Land and is a necessary component to the utopian dimension expressed by the musical numbers: it’s what makes it both lovely and sad, what elicits, in some of us at least, a wistful sigh.
Everything goes in cycles and history repeats itself. As David Bordwell writes, ‘I remember when the classic musicals that we venerate were considered fluff, and I recall how Demy’s films, especially Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, were held at arm’s length by many of my 60s pals. “He tries too hard,” a friend remarked. They’re now saying that about La La Land.’
If there’s a better musical than La La Land since All that Jazz what is it? Chicago? Mamma Mia? Burlesque? Rock of Ages? Into the Woods? Sweeney Todd? La La Land might not be perfect but it’s an achievement, a rare one. I’m trying to get at why the supercilious dismissal of it bothers me and I think that it lies in the refusal to see pleasure, beauty and complexity in that which is feminine, light, pretty. It seems to me that that’s what allows people to talk so heatedly and in such dismissive terms about a film they have yet to see.