The film has earned a record-tying 14 Academy nominations and universal acclaim, but as the Oscar season approaches, it is copping criticism as a mediocre musical, guilty of white-saviour syndrome
Dubbed as the “sparkling, gorgeous musical romance,” the “magical love letter to the golden age of Hollywood” and “a Casablanca reprise for a new generation”, critics’ assessment of La La Land has so far earned establishment vindication, picking up seven Golden Globes and landing a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations. Starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling and directed by Damien Chazelle, the film had wowed even those averse to musicals and appeared a shoo-in for the best picture Oscar. But off late, that seamless run appears to have hit a stutter, dividing fans and critics alike on almost all of its crucial aspects.
The bulk of the renewed evaluation is against the way the film’s lead characters — Sebastian (Gosling), a young, white jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own club, and Mia (Stone), an aspiring actress — have been depicted. A lot is also directed at the portrayal of Sebastian’s chosen genre, jazz.
Music writers appear to have some serious issues with how jazz is presented in the film, best encapsulated by Vulture’s Seve Chambers, who believes La La Land “is clueless about what’s actually happening in jazz.” Sebastian is portrayed as a traditionalist “who harbours dreams of saving jazz by returning it to its roots”, while as the anti-thesis, there is his friend Keith (John Legend), who backs fusion jazz, which incorporates rock and hip-hop into the genre.
Chambers says that most jazz fans would actually side with Keith in that traditionalism is not the best way to revive the musical form. “Though Keith’s words sound reasonable, Chazelle stacks the deck against him: Keith turns out to use a laughably ’80s sound that’s meant to seem completely disconnected from his jazz roots. For extra measure, he also uses a cheesy stage show complete with dancers — a luxury no modern jazz artist could afford, or would even consider. It’s almost as if, well, the movie wants us to hate new jazz. This is a vision of fusion jazz that sounds nothing like the contemporary jazz scene,” Chambers writes.
Then there is the casting.
Jazz, as Noah Gittell points out in The Guardian, is a uniquely black American genre. “Many of its most famous artists were heavily involved in the civil rights movement. It’s noteworthy, then, that the jazz musician Sebastian most reveres is Charlie Parker, who died in 1955 before that movement really got started,” Gittell writes.
And this is precisely why Ira Madison III finds the cast of La La Land problematic. “If you’re gonna make a film about an artist staying true to the roots of jazz against the odds and against modern reinventions of the genre,” writes Ira in MTV News, “you’d think that artist would be black.” “The wayward side effect of casting Gosling as this jazz whisperer is that La La Land becomes a Trojan horse white-saviour film. Much like Matt Damon with ancient China in The Great Wall or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, in La La Land, the fate of a minority group depends on the efforts of a well-intentioned white man: Gosling’s character wants to play freestyle jazz instead of the Christmas jingles he’s been hired to perform because, damn it, if the people can’t hear real jazz, then it’s going to cease to exist,” he adds.
Then there’s Hadley Freeman, who believes Sebastian is “every bad date women have ever had”. Writing in The Guardian, she describes him as a “jazz snob” and “as a side note, often an actual jerk”. “The jazz snob doesn’t have to be into jazz; he just has to believe that his preferred music is the only acceptable music, and that any woman lucky enough to be in his sphere must show their worthiness by appreciating it, too… Those guys who insist on ordering your drink because only they understand what makes a good cocktail? How you must respect their childish obsession with (insert name of sport team) while they make fun of your interest in fashion/romantic comedies/’80s music? Jazz snobs, one and all,” she writes.
The movie has also fallen afoul of gender watchers, with accusations that its treatment of Mia’s character is shallow while it “delves more deeply into Sebastian’s career aspirations and delivers a much more nuanced portrait of his journey”.
“Sebastian’s drive and dedication are more textured than Mia’s, and it is his melody that recurs through the film to denote particularly important moments in their relationship. He is the author of their relationship: he introduces her to jazz, he takes her to see Rebel Without a Cause for research (despite the fact that she is the actor),” writes Leigh Davis in LA Review of Books.
So why is the film suddenly copping such criticism? “Over the past few years, there has been a concerted effort among pop culture critics to elevate the voices of the marginalised. As necessary as this effort is, it can make it more difficult for a film to transcend racial and gender boundaries because there is always a group that can claim that the film ignores them. Notably, La La Land was also criticised for its lack of gay characters on the basis that, well, there are a lot of gay people in Los Angeles but none in the film. Whether you think this is fair or not, it’s going to continue to be an issue until Hollywood more generally solves its problem of inequality in gender, race and sexual identity,” Gitell writes.
But La La Land’s lack of inclusiveness may cost it the best picture Oscar, writes Glenn Lovell in The Los Angeles Times, particularly, he adds, due to the current political climate. “Following the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last year expanded its membership with a healthy infusion of younger, more diverse talent. And unlike the Academy’s Old Guard (white, male, over 50), these new members may well prefer real-life issues over sentiment or institutionalised nostalgia. If the above scenario plays out, the presumptive best picture winner, La La Land, will be the biggest casualty,” he writes.
Kyle Buchanan at Vulture, however, disagrees. “All this online chatter is simply a reminder that La La Land remains the best picture front-runner, a weathervane contender attracting everyone’s lightning strike. It’s peaking at the right time, too — the film is tracking well in its expansion and is on a trajectory to likely clear $100 million, which would make it the highest-grossing Best Picture nominee — so don’t expect the buzz to die down anytime soon,” Buchanan writes.
This view is echoed by Scott Timberg, writing in Salon, who says that part of the backlash was due to the film’s record seven wins at the Golden Globes. “And part of it is as simple as the strong reviews and buzz accumulating, along with some popular support, to lead to the usual backlash (Oh, that’s too popular; it can’t be any good),” he writes.