La La Land is almost great. I think this is why it was so infuriating, and why it’s still on my mind a few days after seeing it. (That, and everyone but me seems to love it, which I find bizarre, especially since I am usually convinced by the erudite review machine.) Its merits as a movie are sort of uninteresting to me; it’s beautiful, for sure. Its merits as a musical are obviously nonexistent, in a way that is evident to anyone who likes musicals, but this movie is for people who look down on musicals, so whatever. But its merits as a story are worth talking about, because when you write, the first question you have to ask yourself is why. Why tell this story? Whom, what, does this narrative serve?
Its laundry list of basic narrative sins provide damning answers. The movie’s bizarre white-savior attitude toward jazz, for instance, manages to disdain the black ingenuity it theoretically seeks to honor. Then, when the female protagonist (Mia) catches her big break before her male partner (Sebastian) does, the script quickly manufactures psychologically unlikely conflict and an apparent disbelief in the existence of Parisian jazz clubs in order to avoid having a man follow a woman’s career. Mia’s career is never given the narrative complexity of Seb’s—we don’t see anything of the play she spends the whole movie working on, while the camera ravishes Seb’s jazz improvisations—so the audience is set up to find their separation noble, rather than childish and jealous. Why tell this story, then? To lionize the nostalgic white dude, I guess. Oscars all around.
But the movie’s ethics are what really get me. Behind all the vibrant nostalgic fantasy, La La Land is unflinchingly cynical. This makes sense, since it’s a Damien Chazelle movie. As Andrew Swafford put it, Chazelle explores “the ethics of art” in his movies, and the lengths an artist should or should not go to for validation. Whiplash asks if abuse is an acceptable form of motivation; it decides that it is effective. La La Land asks if an artist should sacrifice artistic vision and/or personal relationships for career success, and doesn’t really decide.
The movie’s protagonists don’t have to choose between artistic integrity and mass success. They have a few token struggles before their unlikely and basically unexplained big breaks, so they can have their cake and eat it too. It’s not ethical reckoning so much as a perverted passion play: once you’ve suffered enough, L.A. will deign to redeem you.
Mia only writes her play because she and Seb decide to hell with the masses and their ridiculous commercial auditions, make art for its own sake. But when no one shows up to the play, Mia gives up and the film reaches its low point, because secretly the masses’ validation really does matter. Luckily, it turns out a famous casting director was in the play’s small audience, and she hands Mia a dream movie role, so it’s all worth it in the end. To reiterate, we still don’t know what this play was about, nor what her new movie is about. Her art doesn’t matter; her validation does. Absolutely no characters were developed in the making of this film.
What is the point of telling that story? Why is the actual artistic creation incidental? Why is creating it not a victory in itself? Why make art about art being beside the point? Whom does that serve, to define worth by traditional capitalistic success?
This might be Chazelle’s secret brilliance: form reflecting content with wild precision. With Whiplash, he made a movie about the damage done in the name of perfection, one where everyone cried and nodded and maybe even reflected a little before raving about how Miles Teller was willing to bleed to drum like that. With La La Land, he’s made an empty but successful movie about how art is worth it for the validation. I’m so meta, even this acronym.
Meanwhile, the protagonists choose career over personal relationships for no visible reason other than the career dream came first. As Lili Loofbourow put it, in La La Land, love is pragmatic and career is romantic. Mia and Seb make sense when they’re both down-and-out dreamers and need each other’s validation to keep going. They have nothing else in common but that need, though, and so they fall apart easily. Rather than grow together and improve as people, they use each other to further career goals and move on. I think we’re supposed to find this uplifting, but it’s quite pathetic. At movie’s end, Mia has a family in which she’s hardly involved and Seb has an empty apartment and bluesy regret, but they both Made It, so it all worked out in the end, right?
What is the point of telling a story where career fulfilment is a stand-in for personal growth? Why can’t dreams develop? Why can’t artists be humans and not just careerists? Why suck all the transcendence out of the arts? What is anyone’s motivation here and how could it possibly be good?
That this movie is being billed as a romantic escape, a celebration of the dreamers and obsessives among us, is a complete indictment of a culture that has displaced predestination to the careerist realm and substitutes that for depth.