If you haven’t heard, Mayor Eric Garcetti declared April 25 La La Land Day in Los Angeles to coincide with the movie’s release on Blu-Ray, DVD and streaming. The rollout included a jazz band, a full ceremony involving director Damien Chazelle and dancers on the side of City Hall. That’s a lovely idea. Los Angeles is the first city of cinema, La La Land is closer to Best Picture than any Oscar loser in history and our little town should do a better civic job of celebrating its connection to the movies.
There’s only one problem: La La Land does a bad job of representing Los Angeles on the screen. Maybe I was a victim of high expectations—Whiplash was a masterwork of kinetic cinema, and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have always been favorites—but I was disappointed essentially from the first frame. Then again, we’re not here to re-review the movie, which in some ways is excellent. And Chazelle & co. deserve credit for taking a mid-budget musical to the pinnacle of Oscar glory. They did yeoman’s work and didn’t deserve the raw deal or subsequent backlash. But I can’t ignore how the film represented the city I love and still call home.
The point of the movie is ostensibly to showcase Los Angeles. But it fails to do that. The movie’s central locations are the freeway, the Griffith Park Observatory and Hollywood Hills. Those choices are kind of funny—Seb is a rebel without a cause, and Griffith Park is famously featured in the James Dean movie of the same name—but none of those locations are interrogated or understood. The freeway isn’t a place where people meet and come together, but it is the lifeblood of the city. Swingers understood this, with its masterful shot of five different cars in procession onto an on-ramp.
Likewise, Griffith Park isn’t a romantic location; it’s where people go to hike and gaze out onto the city. (500) Days of Summer had a shot, the famous one on the park bench, that captures all of the beauty and hidden architectural gems of the city in a way that La La Land never even attempts. The Hills have always been an amazing mixture of sinister, fun and glamorous. You’d be better served watching Mulholland Drive or The Long Goodbye to understand their appeal. Don’t even get me started on how much more deserving the The Big Lebowski would be.
So why don’t those movies get their own personal day? They showcase the real Los Angeles, the one that’s best understood by those who actually live here. All those movies showcase the city as it is: full of real strivers with real problems banging around real streets and sometimes having a really ugly time.
I can only imagine what Thom Andersen, director of the famously cranky masterwork documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, would have to say about La La Land. His twin obsessions are with authenticity and respect for the architecture that makes Los Angeles the beautiful city that it is. Too often, La La Land confines itself to dark apartments, jazz clubs or theaters. Sure, you can find the life of Los Angeles in those places, but you’re better off wandering down sun-drenched Sunset, hopping into the bars that dot Wilshire or arguing about where Silverlake stops and Los Feliz starts. La La Land captures some of this magic but misses out on both the labor and ugliness that sometimes accompanies it. You get more in the Swingers refrain of “This place is dead anyway” than you do in any of La La Land.
La La Land is a postcard written by someone whose understanding hasn’t progressed in the six years since he wrote the script. No wonder City Hall loves it; this movie washes away all the smog and grit that make the city interesting. Instead, we’re left with nothing but stars.