As a result of early Spring cleaning, I’ve been re-visiting a fair deal of Rick Altman’s text “The American Film Musical” recently which, combined with the increasing backlash of late due to awards season, has gotten me to think more and more about La La Land . It’s a film that I loved upon initial viewing, but was hesitant to write about. I put it in my list of favorite films last year (and if you’re wondering, now marks the time and space where I finally regret not ranking it first) but didn’t write a post about my first impressions. Personally speaking, sometimes infatuation with a piece of art makes the task of objective deconstruction difficult. But, I think the slow trickle of my comments on social media would be more productively placed together in a post compiling my thoughts in this venue. As a disclaimer, that factor and its lack of release on home media make this piece mostly from memory and incomplete. In a future time, I’d like to return to the film and do a complete analysis, complete with the academic sources and attention to sequences that the film deserves, but for now I wanted to finally put something together.
It’s worth approaching the film primarily as a mediation on nostalgia, as that is where it is most fertile for analysis (in my opinion, at least). One critique regularly lobbed at the film is that it exists as pastiche, and not much more. The concept that La La Land is filled with nothing more than reverential mimicry of the past has plagued it since its release. Yet, this denies a more nuanced reading of how the Chazelle utilizes genre familiarity and specific moments of imitation to comment on how the genre can evolve to assimilate with the modernity that the classic MGM musical lacks. One concept that the American Film Musical brilliantly enlightens is that the plot of the musical is so rarely as important as its elements of dualism and what they reveal en route to the oft-predictable climax. The essential dichotomy in La La Land is between nostalgia/traditionalism and modernity. This is reflected most primitively into the film’s opposing halves: the first, through about the Summer Montage, represents the traditionalism that Gosling’s character so ardently reveres by sweeping the characters into classical romanticism. That this half of La La Land indulges in the nostalgia of its characters by conjuring up the past in undeniable, as it focuses on providing the viewer with the attractions of approximating the spectacle of past musical glories–Sebastian swinging on that lamp post like Gene Kelly, Mia et. all’s Grease and Young Girls moments, Sebastian and Mia imitating Astaire and Rogers, as well as the ensemble pomp of Another Day in the Sun and Someone in the Crowd.
However, it is in the second half of the film that Chazelle reveals how incompatible this genre-driven worldview is in a contemporary setting. One pairing that is important is the two montage sequences: the first is an ebullient, colorful ode to romanticism that occurs during the summer. The second, however, returns to the song which Sebastian sings after falling for Mia in order to convey a more intricate view of what the relationship looks like with more professional accountability, as opposed to its nostalgic predecessor. This tactic is less about showing the passage of time (sorry, SNL), revealing little of actual narrative consequence, but more focused on reframing both song and attitude against the more realist backdrop of the second half. Doing so not only reveals the contrast between the traditionalism of the first half and the stark, realism and ambition of the final half, but also attempts to reconcile the nostalgic romanticism in a contemporary life. Hence, Chazelle primarily drops the old-fashioned, choreographed song-and-dance numbers in favor of the montage, a minimalist solo by Mia (Audition) and a John Legend number.
In speaking about the pair of traditionalism and modernity, it is important to dwell a moment on the inclusion of Keith in the film. He spouts, of course, what is the most important line in La La Land, challenging Sebastian with the question “how are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” While, no doubt, being on the nose, this moment clearly defines another integral contrast: Keith’s popularized evolution of jazz versus Sebastian’s nostalgic dream of opening a “pure, jazz club.” It’s not quite as simple as the film sticking its nose up against Keith’s mainstream move–if anything, he’s framed as the character that is most proactively saving a genre about which he is passionate, following in the footsteps of his subversive forefathers. Even if it borderlines on pandering, I would suggest that what little critique of his methods the film offers only exist because it is framed from Sebastian’s point-of-view; there’s little doubt as to the fact that Legend’s song is good, as it was put forth for Oscar consideration in front of a number of Hurwitz’s musical concoctions. Rather, I think this simplistic outlook on jazz is purposeful because it further represents the central question of La La Land: how can you save a genre, the musical (not jazz), that has for all intents and purposes been buried, and how can you get a modern audience to care about it? Where does the musical genre go from here, and how can it adapt to a contemporary worldview?
With this, we return to the film’s most important moment, the Epilogue. I mentioned Altman’s analysis earlier, and without going too deep into the fine points of his arguments (a task for a longer paper at a later date) many American musicals represent the marriage of these two disparate qualities, such as the blending of youthful rebellion and proper adulthood in Gigi. However, Chazelle subverts genre convention in the Epilogue by suggesting that the nostalgia of the film’s first half, and the romanticism of the classic MGM musical, is wholly incompatible presently. In a sequence reminiscent of Jacques Demy’s masterpiece, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the two former lovers reconnect, bringing to the surface the emotional possibility of what may have been had they not drifted apart. Tellingly, Chazelle borrows right from the structure of the classic musical by portraying this as the moment of heightened spectacle and choreography often located within those films–think Gene Kelly’s emotional ballet in American in Paris or Astaire and Rogers dancing Cheek to Cheek in Top Hat. While those examples (re)unite the couples, the Epilogue uses the its choreography, spectacle and incessant references (perhaps the most explicit in the film occur in this section) to present the alternative to how things could have progressed.
Chazelle draws on a wide range of explicit call backs (too many to name, I’d suggest watching the video that parallels La La Land to its predecessors to get a glimpse), so much so that this sequence represents the most concentrated dose of nostalgia in the film. Placing this at the end, Chazelle teases the audiences with the truly, romanticized narrative that La La Land could have been, one which completely indulged itself in the past in a way that allows Sebastian and Mia to both pursue their dreams and relationship. It represents what the film might have been if it had been made in the 50s, while giving the viewer the playful nostalgia that they desire. While breathtaking, the director immediately draws back from this contrast to remind the audience that this, simply put, doesn’t work. In the final moments of the film, Chazelle is positing how to evolve the dormant genre–not by just indulging in nostalgia and recreating the past, but by updating it so that it makes sense in the 2010s. Modernity, in this moment, wins over unabashed nostalgia. When thinking about the film afterwards, this thesis is abundantly clear from the beginning–after the great opening spectacle of Another Day in the Sun the camera pans to reveal Sebastian and Mia on the outside of the musical number, never partaking in it. The consolation of La La Land is that the characters can work hard to obtain some of what they want and share a genuine happiness for each other, yet a choice between romanticism and success must be made. In this way, La La Land functions as both genre critique and progression.
Given how long this post is going (much more than I thought it would), I’d like to give only a slight nod to one other part of the film I think is fascinating: performance. One of my favorite academic pieces to quote is that of Phillip Drake, where he posits that any given performance signifies three meanings: firstly, the character, secondly the skilled artist that is acting, and finally an intertextual celebrity. In the case of La La Land this sets up tension immediately between the first category and the second two. The characters signified are intended to be amateurs, only averagely skilled at their professions despite attempting to hone their skills in a way worthy of making it big. Yet, Chazelle’s casting seems fundamentally at odds with this. In the major roles, he casts two award winning celebrities with the intertextual context of Stone and Gosling having portrayed on-screen couples multiple times before (he’s noted this choice being specifically made as many musicals featured recurring on-screen duos). The musical numbers in La La Land involving the two are purposefully simplistic or rough to satisfy the signification of the characters being normal people, not prodigies, who happen to be singing and dancing. Yet, this creates a disparity with the skilled actors one cannot help but see during a viewing, which has shown in some of the critiques of the two not showing the natural skill of a Kelly or Rogers. In many ways, it is fits the characters in a way that is an ode to their acting skills (to efface complete professionalism and perfection, purposefully, in order to embrace their characters). It’s a fascinatingly complex element of the film I felt necessary to address as someone who writes about spectatorship, but one I don’t quite have the time or space to approach here.