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The Dangerous, Aimless Optimism of 'La La Land'

After the election, many reviewers took solace in the candy-colored joy of the new musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. But the film's bright yet vague values align deceptively well with the dark forces in American politics.
Screengrab via YouTube

The American musical tradition has a long history of dreamers—Annie dreams of having a family; Dorothy dreams of returning to Kansas; Maria and Tony dream of being together—as well as an unparalleled capacity to distill and convey the spirit of these aspirations. Songs that rejoice in the promise of a "tomorrow," of "somewhere over the rainbow," and of "someday" infect us with possibility and hope of our own. But the apotheosis of the musical dream, featured in shows like Funny Girl, Billy Elliot, and Hairspray, is self-reflexive: to make it in show business.


It's to this category of dreaming that La La Land—the new candy-colored, highly hyped, modern-day musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling—belongs. Mia (Stone) wants to be a successful actress, and Sebastian (Gosling) is a jazz pianist who wants to open a club that plays old, classic, "pure" jazz. But, like every musical protagonist trying to make it, Mia and Sebastian have obstacles to hurdle. Fanny Brice has her Jewish nose and "funny girl" looks; the aspiring ballet dancer Billy Elliot has his coal-town upbringing and the fact that he's a boy; Tracy Turnblad is overweight. Mia and Sebastian have to contend with voluminous competition for roles for red-headed white woman and the death of jazz, respectively.

Read more: The Narcissism of Romantic Obsession

Mia's struggles are neatly distilled in one of the first scenes of the movie. She is working her barista job, swoons when a celebrity walks in, and abruptly realizes she is late for an audition, which her boss emphatically does not care about. On her rush out the door, she collides with a man holding a coffee that spills all over her white shirt. Then, at the emotional climax of her audition, while Mia's face is crinkling into a sob, a woman interrupts to inform the casting director that she has a phone call. The director dismisses Mia, who, wearing a blue jacket to hide the coffee, walks down a hallway lined on both sides with red-headed actresses wearing the same white shirt that she has stained. Coffee stains, Hollywood has learned, are a great way to indicate that a thin, white, middle-class woman with clear skin and straight teeth is going through a hard time.


Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Sebastian spies forlornly on the jazz club where he used to play, which recently turned into a "samba/tapas" place. He returns home to find his sister unceremoniously sitting on the stool that Hoagy Carmichael used to play on, scolds her, and goes to his job at an upscale dinner lounge, where he promises his boss he will play only the set of Christmas songs he's been hired to perform. Hamming up the role of the exploited musician, he plays the tunes resentfully, boringly, gracelessly, until inspiration suddenly strikes and he sets off on his own dazzling riff. He is fired for disobeying orders.

What kinds of 'lights that shine' are we, depressed and disappointed American liberals, 'chasing'?

Mia's and Sebastian's struggles continue on in this vein—more auditions cut short, more demoralizing music gigs—but along the way, they meet each other and fall in love. When Sebastian encourages Mia to write parts for herself rather than struggle to fill coveted existing roles, she develops a one-woman show. After overhearing Mia promise her mother that he would find a steady gig to eventually fund his club, Sebastian starts to play keys for an extremely lucrative jazz band, the Messengers, led by his old friend, Keith (who is played by John Legend). At the first rehearsal, Sebastian once again finds his artistry debased by popular musical influences—the band features, God forbid, an electric guitar—but he sticks with it, thinking that Mia wants him to have steady work. When she goes to see them perform, Sebastian is playing the synth, surrounded by three back-up singers and four showy back-up dancers. It is made eminently clear that this is not what Sebastian wants, and Mia's smile fades as she is pushed to the back of the audience by an enormous crowd of female fans who rush the stage when Sebastian has a solo.


The couple begins to argue. Sebastian goes on long tours with a band that doesn't suit him, leaving Mia alone to prepare for the one-woman show that he convinced her to put on by invoking the same values he has demonstrably sacrificed. What, exactly, those values are is never made entirely coherent. Instructing Mia not to care what people think of her, Sebastian reminds her of all the jazz giants who made their names by defying traditions rather than fitting into them. But when he's faced with a band that prides itself on breaking new musical ground by adding synths and backup singers, he balks at their tainting of great traditions.

The movie concludes five years later, when Mia, now an It girl, returns to LA and walks into the café where she used to work, turning heads and prompting whispers. Later that night, she and her new handsome husband stumble unaware into Sebastian's well-attended jazz club, filled with small circular wooden tables and tea candles, paraphernalia of the old legends posted all over the walls. As Sebastian plays his signature song, we watch a highly stylized montage—featuring silhouetted forms and semi-illustrated figures—of what might have been if Sebastian had never joined the Messengers and had instead followed Mia to Paris to film her first movie. On her way out of the club, Mia turns back to share a knowing smile with Sebastian. Their successes, we are made to understand, were enabled by their separation, and both of them appear to be very satisfied with the paths their lives have taken. It is, by all measures, a happy ending—they chased their dreams and realized them—even if they don't share it together.


Screengrab via YouTube

La La Land is steeped in nostalgia—or, as some reviewers have called it, the "fight between the old and new." A backwards-looking optimism is apparent in everything from Mia's wardrobe—pastel, waist-accenting dresses reminiscent of the styles of the 40s and 50s—to the tap and ballroom dances that animate each scene. Early in their courtship, Mia explains to Sebastian that her acting ambition began after her aunt introduced her to old classics like Notorious and Bringing Up Baby and Casablanca, and her image of stardom takes after the (supposedly) dignified lives of the stars of old Hollywood—not the routinely slandered, tabloid-filling female leads of today. Early in the movie, a dinner conversation between Mia's pre-Sebastian boyfriend, his brother, and his brother's wife concerns the subject of "theaters these days" whose "quality has fallen off." After Mia and Sebastian see the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause (whose characters' wardrobes are not unlike their own), the movie theater where it was playing, the Rialto, closes.

Sebastian's nostalgia is even more overt. About his old jazz club turning into a "samba/tapas" place, he says, at one point, "the joke's on history," and at another, "can't let them samba all over its history." He mourns jazz's decline in popularity; it is dying, he says, but "not on my watch." When he expresses his concerns about this decline to Keith, who runs a very successful, far-from-dying jazz band with pop elements, Keith tells Sebastian that "jazz is dying because of people like [him]," who cling to romantic ideas about the past. "How are you gonna be such a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist?" Keith asks. But Sebastian resists these valid criticisms, a white hero determined to uphold the black traditions that the black musicians in the Messengers have themselves discarded (at least in his mind). Earlier on in the film, he asks his sister, "Why do you say 'romantic' like it's a dirty word?"


It has not been overlooked that one of the most unabashedly joyous films this year came out when it did—shortly after the election. The timing meant that La La Land was automatically entered into the unofficial internet quorum on what new release was the most affecting movie to see after the gut-punch of Trump's victory (for Jia Tolentino, it was Arrival; for Francine Prose, Manchester by the Sea). La La Land has racked up glowing recommendations because its glaring brightness provides a happy respite from the American political situation, which seems to get bleaker by the day. The first scene in the movie, even before the title card, features one hundred brightly dressed performers dancing around and on top of cars and singing the lyrics "chasing all the lights that shine," and "it's another day of sun." In her laudatory review New York Times critic Manohla Dargis realized that watching La La Land in the "terrible state" she was in when she saw it "must have been what it was like to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers during the Great Depression." Another reviewer suggested that the movie has "a warmth and optimism that could sweep away any lingering bad feelings after a bruising campaign."

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La La Land will lift us out of our collective gloom, the thought goes, by reminding us what it's like to dream, aspire, and chase "all the lights that shine." But, at the risk of sounding overly skeptical or dismissive, it's by no means obvious what sort of optimism we are meant to leave the theater with. Sure, many of the dance scenes (especially when they involved trained, excellent dancers besides the fine but unremarkable Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling) made me want to dance. I was also moved by the love story that could not be, by the mutually supportive relationship that enabled both partners to thrive independently. (I appreciated that the "what if" sequence imagined a professional sacrifice on Sebastian's part—Mia's career was never regretted, though so many movies place the burden of choice between romantic and professional success on the female lead.) But the sort of hope that the movie inspires is, ultimately, narcissistic and exceptionalist. If Mia and Sebastian each manage to make their dream a reality, then so might I, we say to ourselves. If Mia's face can end up plastered on a billboard, then so might ours.

When I went to dance intensives as a teenager, we used to watch musicals, because their climactic songs would propel us through the hard work of classes and rehearsals with the idea that one day we might make it in the sparkly way laid before us. But for the non-performer, it's unclear what kind of hope La La Land inspires. What kinds of "lights that shine" are we, depressed and disappointed American liberals, "chasing"?

There are many lovely scenes in La La Land, and people who aren't put off by sudden eruptions of song and dance will surely find pleasure in it. But the film's actual accomplishments are modest, and its own optimistic conclusions—Mia can, after all, be the one in a million strawberry-haired white woman that Hollywood wants; Sebastian can succeed in paying tribute to the history of jazz that he takes it upon himself to uphold—say very little about most people's circumstances, personal or political. More condemnably, La La Land inspires us to give in to the temptation of nostalgia, a quality whose usefulness is limited and whose dangers are real. The title of Dargis's review—"La La Land Makes Musicals Matter Again"— echoes the rhetorical structure of our demagogue-elect's most famous campaign promise, the one that relied upon the imagined greatness of past realities, or, rather, actual greatness for the extremely few. This is not to say that Fred Astaire or Bringing Up Baby or Singing in the Rain aren't worthy of our deepest praise, repeat watching, and even mimicry. But the broad, uncritical gaze of nostalgia can conveniently fog over the social realities of any "golden age," and elide important details about who it was golden for.