‘La La Land’ – love it or hate it?

Ever since its release in January 2017, La La Land has continued to divide fans and critics alike. Some have even gone as far as to dub the film ‘the new Marmite’. And by some, I mean me.

It might seem surprising that such a seemingly innocent film – one that takes inspiration from beloved classic musicals such as Singing’ In The Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – has provoked such fierce debate. For the few that haven’t seen Damien Chazelle’s divisive masterpiece, the film follows the relationship between struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and aspiring jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they navigate balancing love and career interests, interspersed with big musical numbers. Upon its initial release, the film was met with critical acclaim. It was a box-office smash and quickly became the owner of a record-tying fourteen Oscar nominations at the 89th Academy Awards. Infamously, it only won six. On paper, therefore, it appears to be a visually superb movie musical that won the hearts of both critics and viewers with its stellar soundtrack and captivating acting performances. Why then have so many turned on the Oscar favourite?

A lot of the La La Land criticism has stemmed from its treatment of the ‘saving jazz’. Gosling’s character Sebastian is a young, white jazz-loving pianist who dreams of opening his own club instead of working at more traditionalist venues where he is unable to play what he wants. However, instead of pursuing his dream, he changes tact and teams up with Keith (John Legend) to create a jazz fusion band in order to show his girlfriend that he is capable of making a living from his craft. Although the band is incredibly successful, Mia struggles to accept that his decision honours his true love for jazz. The storyline was met with considerable backlash from those within the jazz community who felt that this falsely depicted ongoing important debates. The movie infers that Gosling’s character was essentially ‘selling out’ by creating a more modern jazz sound in order to appeal to a wider audience, yet many jazz fans would agree with Keith in that traditionalism is not the way to revive the genre for a new generation. Moreover, a wider backlash emerged over the film’s alleged ‘white saviour narrative’. Jazz is a uniquely black American genre, with many of its most famous artists, such as Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, having been heavily involved in the civil rights movement. Many were not arguing that the film itself was inherently racist, but more that it was nonsensical to separate jazz from black history, especially in a film created by and predominantly about white people.

It seems that this debate has never quite reached a conclusion, much like the film itself. In the film’s final scene, we see that Mia and Sebastian both achieved their dreams of becoming an actress and owning a jazz club respectively – but just not together. The heart-wrenching closing shot in which Stone and Gosling share one last smile suggests that although they both fulfilled their professional goals, was it worth the sacrifice? It’s beautifully bittersweet, and undoubtedly the most tender moment of the film. For me, it encapsulates all that La La Land intended to be. The film pays homage to those timeless movie musicals that are still just as loved even today, but also subverts this with its twist ending. It begs us to question just how far we are willing to go for love, and how far we are willing to go for ourselves.

Yet despite all its beauty, La La Land still fiercely divides critics and viewers. Maybe they feel that Ryan Gosling’s at times rather questionable singing detracts from the film. Maybe they disagree with its portrayal of the revival of jazz. Or maybe they simply don’t like musicals. Whatever it is, Chazelle’s magnum opus has slowly become one of the most controversial films to date. What was once an Oscar-decorated masterpiece is now a great subject for after dinner conversation.


Featured image: Shinya Suzuki with license 

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