By: Joseph Longo
Every awards season, one picture resonates with film critics unlike its competition. This movie doesn’t always have to be the front-runner. But with focus on either the film industry or the press, the picture inherently spurs a sort of insider glee. Last year “Spotlight” held the honor by depicting a famed newsroom. Now, “La La Land” follows suit.
Praise for a modern-day jazz musical navigating one Los Angeles couple’s relationship and career turmoil should come as no surprise. Director Damien Chazelle works almost exclusively on jazz films. Starting with 2009’s “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” he followed to high acclaim with 2014’s “Whiplash.” Two years later, he’s finally an insider with a bigger budget and bankable stars on his side.
All of this led “La La Land” to infatuate critics. Variety’s Owen Gleiberman called it, “the new-fangled version of a sprawling Tinseltown classic.”
He’s not wrong. The films extends beyond just a return to cinema's golden age. As Gleiberman notes, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling heartbreakingly depict the loneliness of trying to make it in Hollywood rarely explored with such nuance in film. Mia is any modern ingenue without a secure path to her big break. Then there’s Sebastian, a jazz aficionado angered by his beloved genre’s decline.
The movie exists in Sebastian's world. With whimsy and magic, the film progresses as an ethereal beauty. An epic opening musical number and multiple extended dance sequences provide purely joyous viewing.
However, this pomp and circumstance dupes critics. The glorious vitality blinds an imperfect film. After all, Mia finds her career success; most aspiring actors cannot say the same.
Yet, this insider obsession is nothing new. The hype surrounding “La La Land” recalls another recent return to the classics: “The Artist.”
The black-and-white silent film follows the relationship between one of Hollywood's leading men and an up-and-coming dancer at the dawn of talking pictures. It's the loss of traditional art in favor of new media as told by romantics. Sounds like a familiar tale.
“The Artist” went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Since then, the French-film and its stars remain largely forgotten when discussing the best movies of recent years. Looking back, it’s not much more than Hollywood praising a film about Hollywood.
Four of the last 5 best picture winners at the Oscars focused film or reporting. With the exception of 2013's “12 Years a Slave," “The Artist,” “Argo,” “Birdman,” and “Spotlight” all centered around people in or near the profession of film and press. Based on the precedent, “La La Land” should have a safe route to success.
Though certainly benefitting from industry nostalgia producing critical acclaim, "La La Land" suffers from a problematic storyline. Mia and Sebastian both repeatedly perform segments of the original jazz song "City of Stars." It's undeniably a great track, yet Sebastian pointedly praises jazz for sounding different with every listen. The writing and the output are not cohesive.
The imperfections extend beyond just script snafus. In a series of tweets, musician Rostam Batmanglij criticized the film's lack of diversity. The former Vampire Weekend member condemned a jazz film with black musicians as fringe characters, although he praised John Legend's performance as Sebastian's collaborator.
At a minimum, it's problematic. The picture is another sad entry in to a long line of Hollywood films ignoring essential diversity.
Fortunately, “La La Land” is certainly no lost cause. It’s the best cinematic musical in recent years, far surpassing 2012's “Les Miserables.” Emma Stone deserves the credit. She's revelatory showcasing a prestige star power never before fully realized.
But the film needs a bigger audience than just the in-crowd. Its biggest competitor does exactly that.
In observing an young man coming to terms with both his sexuality and family, “Moonlight” inherently--and expertly--showcases diversity and exploration of “new” cinematic territory. Meanwhile, “La La Land” is another ode to the romance of film, and film insiders by nature love film. It’s a great feast for a starving critic. Beyond that, it’s more excess fat than meat.