I love movie musicals. I love them, and I have spent the last ten years of my life reckoning with that love: what it means to care about a form that so easily lends itself to fascism; how to grapple with the sexism, racism, classism, and capitalism so often exalted in song. I have spent time and effort learning to love musicals again, appreciating without excusing, adoring without replicating. So when I see a kid from Princeton, NJ, (I grew up fifteen minutes away) decide to fecklessly “remake” the movie musical without considering the political underpinnings of his nostalgic piracy, I get mad, because it’s personal. And political. Isn’t it always?
If La La Land were a masterful example of the genre, I might have been diverted. I wasn’t, and it isn’t. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone can neither sing nor dance with anything nearing the requisite virtuosity (they can certainly act, but acting has never been essential to the form), and director Damien Chazelle doesn’t edit to hide their flaws. If La La Land had faced up to the genre’s cultural baggage, I might have found it meaningful. I didn’t, and it didn’t. Every second of the film is devoted to its stars, who still somehow come off as underdeveloped one-note careerists. If La La Land borrowed intelligently from the long tradition of American movie musicals to speak to the times we live in, I quite honestly would have been thrilled. But the movie’s unexamined, unbridled nostalgia does exactly the opposite; it carelessly pillages a fraught form, thereby reifying all of the tradition’s latent racism, classism, and sexism.
Geoff Nelson wrote in Paste about what Chazelle’s relentless harking back means in our current nightmare democracy, but let me say it again, because it bears repeating: nostalgia for a false, white 1950s Americana will kill us all. As a film, La La Land is little more than a candy-livered attempt at homage, the cumulative experience of which resembles frosting a cake made of buttercream, and the consumption of which elicits the same cloying sweetness. But as a cultural product of our social present straining under the brutality of white American nostalgia, La La Land is a battleground. It’s also the latest in a nasty trend of Hollywood back-patting that comes at exactly the wrong political moment.
The film’s values are not new to this or any age of moviemaking. White people’s shimmering faces, creative struggles, and adorable quirks have long existed as the be-all locus around which a kaleidoscope of othered bodies serves as a colorful (and cheerfully dancing) backdrop. What’s newly troubling to me, however, is that Hollywood has steadily ramped up its exaltation of these values in the past decade, alongside the racially charged individualism (“rights for whites”) of the Tea Party and its white-nationalist allies. Halfway through watching La La Land, I started tracking it in a lineage of slick-surfaced homages to quirky white-boy love in LA, which include 2009’s 500 Days of Summer and the 2013 sixties-styled dysto-future of Her. Remember the two times you saw black people in those movies? Dancing—behind Joseph Gordon-Levitt in that Hall & Oates number, or providing useful slo-mo street performance for Joaquin Phoenix to feel to. In a related vein, recall 2011’s Best Picture winner, The Artist, a French love-letter to silent film that starred a dog. At the time, it was pointless fluff. In context, Hollywood’s mounting allegiance to a nice white retro-filtered picture of itself is tantamount to villainy.
Nice white boys made those films, just like a nice white boy made this one. And I know these nice white boys. They like to play genius before they’ve earned the title, to pretend that their fandom constitutes nuance. I’ve suffered through their plays combining sci-fi and choral Bach, and I know that the good ones (e.g., Joss Whedon when he’s on his game) use genre as a Trojan horse for some greater, more interesting critique. Damien Chazelle is not one of the good ones.
Even on a technical level, he plays it too safe. At least Jacques Demy—the great musical maestro of the French New Wave and the artist Chazelle most blatantly mimics—knew his candy-colored vision of France’s embattled port cities was little more than nationalist myth making. He elevated garbage dumps like Cherbourg to cobblestoned, Technicolor Gardens of Eden (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg); he staged his culture’s obsession with American movie musicals by actually dubbing an aging Gene Kelly with blissful imperfection (Les Demoiselles de Rochefort); he captured the absurd surreality of human romance with a saccharine-sweet wink.
I waited for the wink in La La Land, but it never came. Instead, Chazelle trades in “gritty” and boring questions like “Can pretty men and women really have it all?” with stultifying self-seriousness. Instead, he argues artlessly and defensively for his film’s weak ethics. (Emma Stone, about her one-woman show: “But they’ll say it’s too nostalgic”; Ryan Gosling: “Fuck ’em, that’s the whole point!”) Richard Brody articulates this petulance in his blessedly sane New Yorker review of the film: Chazelle’s lionization of the individual is the one theme his films seem to actually support. Misunderstood white artists are his bread and butter, and when monsters in power are claiming misanthropic status to justify their crimes, I gotta say, Damien, I’m choking on that meal.
Still, there’s clearly a stomach for it somewhere. The American critical establishment has mostly gone gaga for La La Land. And I understand: it gleams, it glimmers, Chazelle has great taste and serious musicality. And sure, this moment we’re all living in is one we’d rather just escape. But now is not the moment to reward escapism, Manohla Dargis. (“I just fell into it, gratefully. I surrendered.”)1 Now is the not the time to make excuses, A.O. Scott. (“You may find your delight shadowed by skepticism…. By the end, those questions vanish under a spell of enchantment.”)2 And now is really not the time to relish the feeling of falling under anyone’s “spell.” Chazelle’s vision is artful, yes, with lovely lighting design, good actors, and some fabulous backup dancers and musicians (who are never allowed to shine). But its relentless derivation is never earned or justified. And in the business of culture, quoting directly without citing is a dangerous game.
And it often backfires. Quoting invites comparison, and La La Land just can’t compete with the films it strips for parts—films that despite their many flaws are, at least, bold. Boldly virtuosic, physically or musically or both. Boldly innovative, technically or aesthetically or both. Boldly grandiose. Hell, even boldly racist. At least with Fred Astaire’s blackface routine in Swing Time, everyone can agree it does not fly. That scene in the club where Emma Stone is shining like a little white angel in a nameless sea of dancing black bodies? Everyone should agree that does not fly.
So on the eve of the Oscars, Hollywood’s great love letter to itself, I present to you a brief works-cited list for Blah Blah Bland (with appropriate trigger warnings, to make it clear what we replicate when we replicate musicals). May you watch them all, and draw your own conclusions.
- Les Demoiselles de Rochefort
Trigger: Needless exploitation of the female body; some weird stalking-is-love undertones.
Jacques Demy’s whole ethos forms the backbone of Chazelle’s film, but I chose this movie in particular for the way it plays with the genre—and its opening sequence, which Bland predictably pilfers but leaches of all its storytelling usefulness, delightful camerawork, and flying cars. Come for the sweeping goofiness of orchestral jazz, stay for the winking casting of George Chakiris and an aging Gene Kelly, two titans of America’s studio musicals repurposed here as much to query 1960s France’s obsession with America as for their (still prodigious) talents.
- Broadway Melody of 1940
Trigger: Boringly formulaic; probably racist.
Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell were the greatest tappers in the studio system, and this is their only on-screen pairing. She’s wooden and he’s predictable in the acting department, and the story is a classic get-lose-get, but their immortal duet to “Begin the Beguine” makes it all worthwhile, and its scenic concept was so viscerally jacked for the finale of Bland that I actually yelled “No!” at the sight of Gosling and Stone dancing so listlessly on those hallowed starry floors.
Trigger: Endless apologizing for domestic violence; sex-negative rantings; a character named “Jigger.”
Based on the surprisingly dark stage musical, this vehicle for Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones is arguably their best. If you don’t watch the whole thing (it might not be worth it), just take in their first duet, “If I Loved You.” Even with a hilariously fake sunset backdrop, this sequence runs circles around Chazelle’s awkward homage, a sunset in Griffith Park where Gosling and Stone first flirt and then dance with equal woodenness. In Carousel, soak up the virtuosic baritone of Gordon MacRae, and all the lyric humility Rogers and Hammerstein afford him: “There’s a hell of a lotta stars in the sky / And the sky’s so big the sea looks small / And two little people, you and I / We don’t count at all.”
- Sweet Charity
Trigger: Violence against sex workers; simpleminded “hope” that excuses all nightmares.
It’s not the easiest pill to swallow, and it’s not Bob Fosse’s best directorial work (Cabaret is much better), but there’s a giddy experimentation with stills and angles here that makes the movie worth watching. Still, the real draw is the sequence Bland steals for Emma Stone’s getting-ready song: “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” performed by the astonishing Chita Rivera, Paula Kelly, and Shirley MacLaine, who calls on years of dance training to hold her own no problem, and might be the reason I will never forgive Emma Stone for her flimsy arm work.
- An American in Paris
Trigger: Again, some creepy “stalking-is-love” moments; a general disregard for the fact that Leslie Caron is a teenager.
The dream ballet finale set to George Gershwin’s suite is the stuff of legend, so I hardly need draw the parallel between Bland’s ending and this one. In fact, if Chazelle’s stars could dance at all, if he’d committed more screen time to the sequence, if he’d left out the ridiculous “home movies” section, and if he’d allowed the ensemble any moments to shine, this might have been a really successful homage.
There’s a reason thoughtful directors haven’t really made movie musicals since All That Jazz. You can’t. Not in today’s America, not without critically engaging the form itself. It’s a powerful medium, and one that was used for too long to excuse, exalt, or otherwise distract from racial, gender, and economic violence in this country. If you’re jonesing for something contemporary, may I recommend Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the TV-musical series that uses the form to ask penetrating questions about the collective delusion that is “storybook romance”? Otherwise, watch something old with new, lovingly critical eyes. There’s real pleasure in it, I promise.