La La Land deserves its record-breaking 14 Oscar nominations, I realise. When I saw the movie, I wasn’t blown away.
Pleasant entertainment, with a pretty central couple and nice frocks. Two actors dancing like the celebrity winners of the TV dance contest Strictly Come Dancing and singing like cruise-ship karaoke. You applaud their efforts and can, to an extent, understand the critical acclaim. We need pleasant distractions now, in the face of United States President Donald Trump and Brexit. We need nostalgia and escapism.
But I’ve changed my mind. La La Land deserves its nominations and more: it deserves to win Best Picture. Because it isn’t escapism; it’s a story for our age. Ryan Gosling, who pluckily spent three months learning piano to play the protagonist, is the perfect hero in a year when the new US president can take over with no training. His reality show-type song-and-dance routines suit this new era, when a mediocre businessman and second-rate TV celebrity can become commander-in-chief.
If Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary, cannot answer questions on basic policy, how can we criticise an actor for less-than-perfect performances? Our current culture doesn’t just excuse amateurs; it elevates them to the highest roles.
I thought La La Land borrowed its best scenes from earlier, superior musicals; I may have been technically correct, but I was still wrong. When commercial cinema is saturated with reboots and sequels, La La Land’s pastiche of An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain and so many others counts as originality.
At least it cast actors who are still alive, rather than constructing a computer-generated image simulation of Fred Astaire. At least it patched its borrowed moments together into a kind of story, copying and pasting them on to its cute, contemporary narrative rather than just offering a best-of clip show. That’s surely all we can wish for, at a time when Trump’s inaugural address included an uncited quotation from a Batman villain.
Some say La La Land appropriates the black art form of jazz, with Gosling in the white-saviour role as its purist champion. But what could be more 2017 than a movie that celebrates mansplaining and whitewashing, that has Gosling talking loudly over older, African-American musicians to impress his date, and then shows them nodding appreciatively, grateful for his support?
La La Land’s approach to jazz is surely acceptable in a year when Trump’s wife, Melania, got away with delivering a speech seemingly plagiarised from former first lady Michelle Obama.
Meanwhile, John Legend’s marginalised appearance as Gosling’s one black friend, who begs him to join a band, then sells out the genre with his tacky commercialism, suits an Academy Awards list that congratulates itself on avoiding last year’s Oscars So White controversy, yet nominates white men and women over people of colour in the Best Actor/Actress category by a ratio of 4:1.
I had one remaining reservation about La La Land when I heard it praised as a pioneering new musical. It opens like a musical, sure, with a big opening number by the whole company — including minor roles for people of colour, who disappear after this scene — and continues briefly in that vein, with old-fashioned movie montages and Emma Stone’s roommates dancing around the apartment like the girls in the classic musicals Sweet Charity and West Side Story.
But after the next routine, What a Lovely Night, and the first date (City of Stars), the movie gives up on its genre and largely becomes an indie flick with occasional songs.
The opening mode, where characters sing as readily as they speak and break unthinkingly into dance, is almost forgotten: compare the relatively realist middle section of La La Land with West Side Story, where the songs and choreography are regular punctuation, an alternative expressive language that the cast cannot resist slipping into when emotions run high.
Most of La La Land’s spectacle is in the trailer, edited into enticing glimpses; in the movie itself, these fantasy moments are paced out, with long stretches between them.
But I’ve realised that a musical-that-isn’t-a-musical, hailed as the best musical of the decade in a decade with barely any musicals, is just what we need this year, in our post-truth era of alternative facts, when a president who lost the popular vote can boldly lie about things we all saw with our own eyes.
A flattering love letter to Hollywood, its film industry and its cinema history, rewarded by an academy whose job it is to celebrate Hollywood, its film industry and its cinema history — what could be more perfectly circular, more self-congratulatory and more suited to the time?
La La Land already plays like an awards show, before it has won any Oscars — it’s a tribute reel, like one of those clever end-of-ceremony acts in which Neil Patrick Harris does a song and dance, and brings the house down. It’s a white male American dream, a story in which the alternate version of what happened to the characters is just as persuasive and powerful, and a lot more glamorous, than what we just saw happening.
My mistake was in thinking that this was a made-up world. But we are living in La La Land. It deserves to win big at the Oscars: until we all wake up, it’s the Best Picture we deserve.
Will Brooker is a professor of Film and Cultural Studies at the University of Kingston. This article was first published in The Conversation