Any movie that attracts the cooing adoration La La Land has basked in since its release last month is bound to get curmudgeons bitching about everything wrong with it, and director Damien Chazelle has given his detractors plenty of ammo. Even people in the tank for the movie admit that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone can’t sing their way out of a wet paper bag. Stone couldn’t dance her way into one. As a hoofer, Gosling is moderately more convincing than his costar. But he’s still putting on the Ritz at a Young Frankenstein level. To crusty old fans of the glamorous vintage musicals Chazelle keeps quoting from—e.g., Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron’s An American in Paris—these amateur-hour 21st-century shenanigans look like a travesty, not an homage.
Serious jazzbos aren’t any crazier about La La Land’s nutty take on their favorite art form. That includes the hero’s self-valorizing monopoly on incarnating everything holy about it. Gosling’s piano-tinkling, Hoagy Carmichael-worshipping Sebastian isn’t just a hopeless musical reactionary. He’s also a noble white dude who sticks up for artistic purity while an opportunistic African American foil (John Legend) is the sellout who just wants to commercialize the genre. On top of that, Chazelle’s presentation of supposedly contemporary “commercial” jazz—all funkified flash, synthesizer squeals and gyrating backup dancers—is pretty damn gaga—or, at the very least, several decades out of date, even as parody.
Meanwhile, unamused women, New York Magazine’s Anna Silman most notably, can’t stand Gosling’s endless mansplaining of jazz to Stone’s unschooled Mia, who starts out agnostic but turns devout because her new beau is so sexy. (Silman’s best line is an apparently well-informed moan: “Only tell a Male Music Nerd that you do not like their preferred music if you have at least four free hours on your schedule to be taught exactly why you’re wrong.” ) Another insult is the way Chazelle treats jazz as an exclusively masculine domain. Besides slighting women’s traditional role as the genre’s defining singers, he’s ignoring their increasing modern-day prominence as instrumentalists, bandleaders and composers.
So what’s a white guy who thinks La La Land, faults and all, is still fairly wonderful gonna do? For starters, let’s acknowledge that the sequences of Legend’s cynical hepcat inducing virtuous Gosling to betray his art for money and success are the worst thing in the movie by miles. Besides being unpleasant in their racial politics, they’re stridently unconvincing, even in Chazelle’s fairy tale. With that big failing unchallenged, defenders can get busy trying to rebut the other complaints.
It’s totally true that Gosling’s and Stone’s singing and dancing skills wouldn’t cost Fred Astaire and Gingers Rogers a minute’s sleep. So what? Chazelle means to evoke classic Hollywood musicals, but La La Land is also a virtual remake of French director Jacques Demy’s classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Demy’s stars, the great Catherine Deneuve and asterisk-bound Nino Castelnuevo, were similarly ill-equipped and faltering, underlining the wistful gap between these “ordinary” people and the operatic emotions they were trying to express.
Demy’s M.O. also drew attention to his characters’ distance from the American musicals they were emulating. Chazelle is dramatizing something similar about his millenial protagonists’ relationship to the art of the past—not only yesteryear’s jazz, but yesteryear’s movies and L.A.’s whole fabulous history. Even though Sebastian and Mia would like to make it their own, its glories will always belong to their ancestors. At some level, they know it.
Getting irked by the fatuous and vainglorious sides of Gosling’s character also makes sense. Whether that’s a failing depends on whether you believe Chazelle’s take on him is uncritically admiring. Even Silman’s ultra-smart takedown recognizes that Sebastian is a familiar, maddening modern type; what she saw as mansplaining can just as easily be read as a withering portrait of a compulsive mansplainer. The already famous scene where Sebastian is so eager to sell Mia on his passion for jazz that he talks right over the live band playing behind them has to be a deliberate joke on the breed.
Gosling’s charm is deceiving, because his character really is kind of a pain in the ass. Hermetic and close to humorless, Sebastian is nowhere near as warm or receptive to new insights and experiences as Mia. Chazelle, one suspects, is at least ambivalent about his screen stand-in’s stiff-necked monomania. This jazz-nut director is a Sebastian himself, but maybe more self-aware than he gets credit for about the downside, including _SPOILER ALERT _the lonesomeness involved in preferring music to people that crystallizes at the end. We may feel sympathetic, but he’s not alone because Mia screwed him over. He did that to himself.
Despite Chazelle’s genuine love of the music, jazz buffs who go into La La Land expecting an authentic portrait of either its past or its present will come out feeling even groggier than they did after his last movie, Whiplash. Yet in the movie’s non-realistic, stylized world—and it is a gossamer-and-moonbeams fantasy, after all—jazz is unmistakably a metaphor. It could be anything, really: Dungeons & Dragons, Frank Miller graphic novels, Scorsese movies or whatever else men (but relatively few women) get hooked on to buttress their identity. If these deforming Guyville obsessions weren’t so commonplace in our modern versions of the male-female dance, not only men, but women, wouldn’t identify with Sebastian and Mia’s doomed romance as readily as they do.
Speaking of Scorsese, the other elephant in the room besides Umbrellas of Cherbourg is his own misbegotten attempt at a revisionist take on classic musicals: 1977’s New York, New York, starring Robert de Niro as the Travis Bickle of 1940s saxophone players and Liza Minnelli as his muse. One of the many ways New York, New York went wrong was that it didn’t have much to say about New York. By contrast, starting with the way it turns a derisive nickname for L.A. into cause for celebration, La La Land is the most eloquent movie yet made about the idea of Los Angeles, a place that’s always been as much an idea as a reality anyway. You know, just like the rest of the U.S., only more so.