I have only one major misgiving about La La Land, although I accept that the fact there’s only one will make me unpopular with many of my oh-so-discerning muso mates, some of whom care about the jazz in a way that I don’t (and that actually I feel is indefensible. Probably I’ll get to this in more detail later on. Maybe not. But anyway). What I can’t quite believe is that two people who, in their last scene witnessed, say, ‘I’m always gonna love you,’ don’t stay in touch when one of them moves overseas. Staying in touch is piss-easy these days; even if you’re a superstar and you don’t want to dally with socials then surely you’ll have an email address. A mobile phone number. Something via which your dearests can contact you and see how you’re doing. In La La Land we are expected to buy that when Mia (Emma Stone) leaves for France, communication with Seb (Ryan Gosling) is completely discontinued, and when she moves back to Los Angeles they don’t get in touch again. If I’d said ‘I’m always gonna love you’ to someone, I’d be quite keen to know they were still alive and happy and doing their thing, no matter how far away they’d taken themself. That’s actually true in my life. I write to my friends. I ring them. They ring me, or they write, because we love each other. Occasionally we’re lucky enough to meet in person but even though that mayn’t be frequent or even regular, we don’t let go. Hence: friendship. Love.
Anyhow. There’s been a massive amount of scorn deposited on La La Land for various reasons, and I’m here to contest it. I have found it to be one of the most pertinent and meaningful movies, personally, that I have seen. There are so many things in it to which I respond, and in which I find genuine consolation. (‘Consoling’ is a word I regularly use, for stuff that helps me; I recall John Updike describing his Episcopalian faith as consoling and that meant something to me too.)
So: La La Land. The opening scene is described by the humourless and point-missing Richard Brody in The New Yorker as ‘a massive dance sequence for the drivers stuck on the freeway, emerging from their vehicles, young and old alike (but almost all young), to leap and twirl between and atop cars in one gliding and swivelling long take. The shot remains, for the most part, nearly at eye level, and it doesn’t convey the delights or inspirations of the dancers in relation to their setting so much as the conspicuous labor of rehearsal and execution that kept everyone in order and in place throughout the number and used the camera to cram it all in.’ This strikes me as hogwash. For in actual fact the song itself, if you listen to it, sets the terms for the film in a dramatic and (dare I say) poetic manner that is truly engaging. The words of the song attend entirely to the hopes and dreams of young people aspiring to a creative and contributive life – admittedly on US movie-industry terms, but all the same – and accept that things won’t always be smooth or easy or rewarding, but that you have to keep going at what you believe you were put here to do. I myself feel that the performers of this selection contribute entirely appropriately to its message, and I am appreciative of its sentiment and grateful for its enunciation. I am of a mind with them, and when I watch their work in my darker moments I am drawn back to my own purpose. It’s as simple as that.
I may be intolerably shallow and too easily swayed by the sentimental or the wanton, I don’t know. Perhaps I just react to movies as someone who wishes his or her life were otherwise. Maybe it’s the colour and movement. But I don’t think so. I’ve lived through a good amount of life as an individual trying to make his own work, and dealing with the crap that goes with it, so I feel I relate.
Here’s how it begins:
I think about that day
I left him at a Greyhound station
West of Santa Fé
We were seventeen, but he was sweet and it was true
Still I did what I had to do
’Cause I just knew
You just know, right? You’d not go for a life in the arts for material reward or glory or the satisfaction of meeting your heroes. (They’re as distant as material reward.) But you have to do it because you don’t feel you can live with doing anything else. You are drawn to performance, to expression, simply because you feel you have something to express, to offer. You need to communicate what it is you know and feel, with the people around you. So goes art. And immediately, in the first lines of the film, someone has chosen to pursue her work over her relationship. It’s not a crime.
All this singing and dancing is of course before you meet Seb, who is, I’ll make plain straight away, a jazz dickhead. Now jazz dickheads exist, they do. I’ve met a few. I don’t like them, but they’re out there. And because I know them, I know that Seb is an entirely plausible character. He’s the kind of guy who’s read Jazz anecdotes and cared about its contents. He has then gone on to repeat stories learned there (or in To be or not to bop, or Music is my mistress, or Beneath the underdog, or whatever) and modelled his life after those things he’s been able to glean from the Great Masters who made the name of the music he loves. Ryan Gosling’s performance is marvellous for how completely he can depict jazz dickheadedness, and my hat is off to him. Perhaps he met a few too along the way. They’re out there. A lot of them are white, as well, which for me answers all the problems people seem to have with the depiction of Seb as jazz’s ‘saviour’. He opens a club. Lots of white people do that. He’s presenting jazz in his club. I don’t know necessarily if that’s ‘saving’ it. The world is going to move on in its own very many directions in spite of anything an individual piano playing club owner does. Music is a very broad church. The critical overstatement of his mission and its success is actually rather galling.
One of the major troubles I feel I have with people who have dissed this picture is that I don’t think they get the extent to which Seb is a jazz dickhead. He is not a hero. They seem to think that the director is telling us that jazz finished in the post-bop era and we should all fill our apartments with photos of jazz greats and treasure a stool on which Hoagy Carmichael sat, and if we don’t we’re trash. Such is not my impression. Characters in movies act to propel the story. They are not necessarily any representation at all of the people who made the film. To imagine that they are is intellectually deficient, and rather boring. Nor are they by definition any great shakes as people. Damien Chazelle and his colleagues have given us Seb, the jazz dickhead, and Mia, the struggling actor, and asked us to reflect on the situation/s in which they find themselves. That’s all.
Why shouldn’t a jazz dickhead meet a struggling actor? Why shouldn’t they hit it off? Each has something that interests the other – that’s more or less how romance works. It’s left open as to whether Mia actually recognises Seb’s jazz dickheadedness and that this has something to do with how she can leave him behind. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.
Mia makes a one-woman show, Goodbye Boulder City, and it is not the commercial and critical success for which she has hoped, at least not on the immediate evidence of its only performance. Speaking as an original creative artist myself, this is plausible to a degree that is almost painful. Anyone who has ever done original creative work, put her or his life and blood into a piece that, once made, can be carried to the public, knows intimately the disappointment of the public’s lack of interest. Mia’s closest friends appear to be in the audience, but even this doesn’t happen all the time. I could give chapter and verse from my own life of occasions when I believed I had made something truly original, something personal and even touching, and I had gone on the radio to promote it, made a Facebook event and put posters up all over the place, and seen only a dozen or so people when I launched it. We have to be philosophical about this, but it happens.
When Mia responds to this disappointment by returning to Boulder City, she quite plausibly reconsiders whether acting is the best use of her time. Everyone has been there too, I think. When Seb comes to tell her of the producers’ interest in her for an upcoming motion picture, she says ‘I don’t want to do it anymore.’ ‘Why don’t you want to do it anymore?’ he asks, and she replies, ‘Because I think it hurts a little bit too much.’ There is no measuring the degree to which I relate to this line. Depression, which is something I know about, robs you of your sense of self-worth, and is fed by disappointments at work. One knows, of course, that it’s not a great idea to focus on what’s going wrong, to obsess about the things that didn’t work out, to count the heads in the audience and take that as a measure of achievement. But still one fails at times, and does it. And it hurts. One thinks, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’
Here’s a critical complaint: Mia regularly hears Seb play but he does not see her act. He even misses her show because he’s doing stuff with the band. Now Mia doesn’t actually do very much acting in the course of the movie, because her career is not proceeding as she’d wish. Scarlett Johansson’s Nola Rice in Woody Allen’s Match Point is facing much the same thing. Auditions, auditions, occasionally a call-back but no great action. Nola too considers giving it all away. Because Seb has committed to the band he’s in, The Messengers, he has to do a photo shoot, and this means he misses Mia’s show. I’m not sure we can blame him for this. It’s how things work if you’re doing promotion and tours.
Brody again: Mia ‘attends a concert by the Messengers; the house is packed, Seb’s in the spotlight playing a brief solo, then Keith starts to sing and the audience goes wild. The funk begins, the backup singers start to sing, four dancers take the stage in front of Seb, he plays a keyboard that lights up as he fingers it, the audience is exultant—and Mia looks around her in bewilderment, as if wondering: They all look like they’re really enjoying this—am I supposed to be enjoying this, too? It’s exactly how I felt while watching this denatured movie.’ I don’t read this scene in anything like this fashion. The look on Mia’s face suggests to me someone who thought she knew what her boyfriend was after artistically, but is watching him produce something she’d thought he’d despise. It’s confusing for her, which is why she looks confused. The situation is not at all complicated.
And it all makes sense, since so much of La La Land has to deal with the decisions you make about the progress of your own life – what you want and how to achieve your goals. For me, these are the biggest questions the movie poses and they’re really important ones. Mostly here they have to do with work, but not entirely. Seb has taken up with a band playing music he doesn’t love, because it will give him some kind of security, perhaps in order to contribute to an ongoing relationship, perhaps also as the beginnings of something that can lead to him doing professionally what he really wants: opening his club. The deal is appreciable, and he’s in it for the cabbage. That’s a valid decision, and he’s made it. There are consequences, as it turns out, for his relationship. These are paid attention. I don’t know what everyone’s getting so upset about.
Complaint: Seb talks about jazz’s emphasis on community but always seems to be playing solo. Girish Shambu on anothergaze.com: ‘The couple of times we see Sebastian play with others – in Keith’s (John Legend’s) band or the ‘80s pop cover group – it is clearly signaled by the film that the music is somehow beneath him, and he is “selling out”.’ His only group performances, we are led to believe, are with the funk band or, earlier, the covers band – by both of which, it is assumed, we are supposed to be disappointed because they’re not sufficiently jazz. Wrong: there is in fact a scene where he’s sitting in with a jazz ensemble and does some serious group jazz playing. Mia is dancing, and it’s right before Seb meets Keith and hears about the new band that eventually he joins. This brings me to another complaint that I found insufferable: that there was not enough jazz in the score. It’s a musical. So was High society. So was Shall we dance?. So was Show boat. Do we worry about their jazz? Or are we merely grateful that creative musicians mined the fields of their songs to produce arresting original takes on what the composers and lyricists had generated? I get the sense strongly from La La Land that Seb likes jazz, and cares deeply about it. I don’t need to hear some hokey wannabe Coltrane busting out a B-flat blues to remind me that jazz exists. I see no reason why some creative improviser mightn’t take ‘Someone in the crowd’ or ‘Another day of sun’ or ‘City of stars’ and work with them. They’re just songs. The songs by George Gershwin or Irving Berlin or Cole Porter were adopted by creative improvisers who made jazz with them. This needing of stylistic authenticity looks alarmingly like a strain of jazz dickheadedness. To my mind, many of those who criticised La La Land so enthusiastically resemble Seb in a manner I doubt they’d welcome, if they could see it.
Gabrielle Madewell at medium.com:
Sebastian’s character is very much framed in [a] gendered way, being super consumed with his own career goals and not really giving the same amount of effort in compromising his own desires to make the relationship work better. This is obvious when he misses her one woman show to work on things with the band, and the fact that he asks her to pick up her life to go on tour with him, setting aside her personal goals so she can be a sideshow in him accomplishing his. He is seen as just being a man who is very in love with his music and he’s praised for this devotion; however, if it were Mia who wasn’t compromising much for the relationship, she would be disliked far more than Sebastian.
Curious. I don’t like Sebastian. He’s not, to me, all that likeable. That he even asks Mia to adapt her rehearsal schedule so she can visit with him on tour is horrid. But note: she says no. She makes clear what she has to do, and that she’s going to do it. And she does it. The scene doesn’t end well, but each has said his or her part. Neither is prepared to compromise for the relationship at this point. That he thinks she can or will, only demonstrates who he is. He is not a hero.
He is however also said to ‘mansplain’ jazz (that’s Brody once more, although he’s not the only one to have said it) but I don’t think that’s fair. He tells Mia about it, because she is not familiar. And he does talk over the jazz band he’s taken her to hear, so that is a bit annoying. But she seems sufficiently interested to listen to what he has to say. This is not mansplaining. Mansplaining would be assuming he knew more and telling her about how to act, or how to sell coffee. I don’t recall him doing this.
Now because I’d heard so many bad things about this film, mostly on social media and from my ever-so-discerning muso friends, I thought I probably wouldn’t need to see it. But then I had a message from a dear friend who had just watched it and said she was ‘in absolute bits’. Sall had seen the first scene on a plane I think and hated it; she was away so I organised a private viewing.
I disagree with my friend about the ending, and I’ve told her; I think the final smile the two characters give each other is confirmation that the right choices were probably made. Mia has fantasised about what life might have been like with Seb had they stayed together, and it was his life that had to change, not hers. (This piece puts it very well.) I think it’s nothing more than convention that seeks to have Mia and Seb together at the end of the film; they had other things for which to work, and they worked for them. Presumably Mia loves her partner; we don’t see if Seb has found someone else but surely it’s not impossible.
Ultimately what La La Land gives me though is the example of people making decisions about their lives that liberate them to contribute in the manner in which they feel obliged to contribute. The obligation comes with the life. The decisions we make about the work we are going to do, the relationships we are going to pursue, the lives we are going to live, are the biggest we make. They can be unpredictable and unexpected. Their consequences can be grave or ecstatic. We are in it for the journey and that continues.