La La Land: The cu­ri­ously di­vi­sive Oscar front-run­ner

The Hamilton Spectator - - A & E - JAKE COYLE

NEW YORK — These are di­vi­sive times. Agree­ment is hard to come by. And “Satur­day Night Live” is pro­vid­ing some of the most tren­chant satire on the mat­ter.

We are speak­ing, of course, about “La La Land.” No film — not Mel Gib­son’s bloody Chris­tian war tale “Hack­saw Ridge,” not Paul Ver­ho­even’s rape drama “Elle” — has sparked the kind of opin­ion clash that Damien Chazelle’s toe-tap­ping mu­si­cal about show­biz dream­ers has.

It’s not just an­other day of sun, as the movie’s open­ing num­ber goes. It’s an­other day of think pieces.

“La La Land,” ro­man­tic and sin­cere, might seem an un­likely light­en­ing rod. But that’s the life of the front-run­ner, which “La La Land” def­i­nitely is. It’s made more than $300 mil­lion at the box of­fice, glob­ally (re­mark­able for a $30 mil­lion movie). It matched the record of 14 Academy Awards nom­i­na­tions. It set a new Golden Globes mark with seven wins. And re­cently, it tri­umphed at the Bri­tish Academy of Film and Tele­vi­sion Awards.

One of the cu­ri­ous as­pects of to­day’s Oscar sea­son is that the movies that some­how man­aged to get made and re­leased in fran­chise-crazy Hol­ly­wood and that then some­how rise to the Os­cars, aren’t cel­e­brated so much as the Academy Awards nears. Reach­ing this zenith of­ten means get­ting torn apart for im­per­fec­tions, blind spots and — hor­ror of hor­rors — sub-As­taire danc­ing.

The back­lash was in­evitable for “La La Land.” It’s just a mat­ter now of whether the tide will turn back in time for the Fe­bru­ary 26 Os­cars. So to help you de­cide what side you’re on in this most cru­cial of bat­tles, here’s a run­down of the case against “La La Land.”


Some crit­ics have said that “La La Land,” for all its charms, is a pale im­pres­sion of the ear­lier mu­si­cals it was in­spired by. There are the clas­sic Hol­ly­wood back­lot mu­si­cals like Fred As­taire and Cyd Charisse in Vin­cent Minelli’s “The Band Wagon” (1953) and, of course, “Sin­gin’ in the Rain” with As­taire and Deb­bie Reynolds. Or there’s the on-thestreet French mu­si­cals of Jac­ques Demy, like “The Um­brel­las of Cher­bourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” which in­spired the open­ing free­way scene of “La La Land.” These were the real-deal orig­i­nals, they say.

Counter: This is one that prob­a­bly even Chazelle wouldn’t much quib­ble with. He’s spo­ken of­ten and with rev­er­ence for these and other mu­si­cals. “La La Land” is un­doubt­edly deeply an­i­mated by nos­tal­gia, but its char­ac­ters — and the movie, it­self — hinges on find­ing a con­tem­po­rary ex­pe­ri­ence with some con­nec­tion to the clas­si­cal.


For oth­ers, the song-and-dance skills of Gosling and, to a lesser ex­tent, Stone, aren’t up to the stan­dards of Gene Kelly, Reynolds or As­taire. The pair trained with chore­og­ra­pher Mandy Moore and Gosling learned to play pi­ano with­out any pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence. They may be quick stud­ies, but they aren’t the equals of the mu­si­cal greats.

Counter: Well, who is? And part of the ap­peal of “La La Land” is that its char­ac­ters, even as they soar, are more down to earth. Be­sides, the con­sid­er­able gifts of Stone and Gosling are more than just foot­work. They’re a heck of a lot fun­nier than As­taire, for starters. But it’s prob­a­bly a good thing that the movie’s two nom­i­nated songs will be per­formed by co-star John Leg­end, not Gosling or Stone, at the Os­cars.


In the “SNL” sketch, Aziz An­sari is grilled by po­lice de­tec­tives for his crime of not be­ing head-over-heels about “La La Land.” “I liked the movie. I just didn’t love it,” he protests. “It’s a whole movie about jazz and there’s no black peo­ple in it.” Oth­ers have gone fur­ther in an­a­lyz­ing the film’s racial un­der­cur­rents. MTV’s Ira Madi­son called the movie “a white-saviour film in tap shoes,” crit­i­ciz­ing it for mak­ing Gosling’s char­ac­ter, Seb, the de­fender of true jazz, and Leg­end’s band­leader char­ac­ter the sel­lout. For an African Amer­i­can-cre­ated art form, this is back­ward.

Counter: This one is hard to shake. It could be ar­gued that “La La Land” is al­most to­tally fo­cused on its two leads. (This is why many be­lieve it was passed over for the Screen Ac­tors Guild top hon­our, best en­sem­ble.) There are no sig­nif­i­cant parts be­yond Gosling and Stone, and that lim­it­ed­ness may be to the film’s detri­ment, dra­mat­i­cally and cul­tur­ally. It’s a glar­ing de­fi­ciency this year, too, be­cause af­ter two straight years of “Os­cars-So-White” back­lash, in­clu­sion is the theme of this year’s Academy Awards. Six African-Amer­i­can ac­tors are nom­i­nated and sev­eral best-pic­ture con­tenders — “Moon­light,” “Fences” and “Hid­den Pic­tures” — make for a stark con­trast with “La La Land.”


Oth­ers have taken is­sue with not just the racial un­der­tones of the movie’s jazz, but of its por­trait of the mu­sic. Jazz has been a spe­cialty for Chazelle, a pas­sion­ate afi­cionado who grew up play­ing drums and whose pre­vi­ous film, “Whiplash,” was about a jazz drum­mer. But some crit­ics say the film’s view of jazz is clichéd, that its terms — of jazz “pu­rity,” of rel­e­vance — are out of sync with the more dy­namic mod­ern land­scape of jazz.

Counter: Some of this may be con­fus­ing the per­spec­tive of Seb — whose self-se­ri­ous­ness is of­ten meant to be a joke — for that of the movie. But it’s also pos­si­ble that we all have big­ger things to worry about than the au­then­tic­ity of the jazz in “La La Land.”


Crit­ics take is­sue with Emma Stone’s and Ryan Gosling’s danc­ing and singing and that the movie is just, well, too white.

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