Directed by Damien Chazelle
Sorry in advance. This review is stilted in politics given that every critic out there seems to want to tackle race politics with this film.
Despite all of the stuff I don’t talk about below, this film has memorable performances, tremendous editing and pace, and some of the most breathtaking cinematography of the year. But permit me to digress…
There’s a great moment when Ryan Gosling’s character Seb is awaiting Mia for their second date to watch “Rebel Without a Cause” after he finds out she’s never seen it. When she finally arrives with a wash of the Nicolas Ray film upon her silhouetted body, their eyes meet. It’s in the intimacy of the theatre that they share their first touch and almost their first kiss. That is until the film burns out.
The allusion to the classic film is obvious: both share narratives about two misfits who fall in love, both are shot in beautiful Cinemascope, and both are about the disenchanted youth of America.
The fundamental difference, though, is everything. Where “Rebel Without a Cause” is about Jim Stark’s resistance against authority, his latent homosexuality and the outdated modes of society imposing their will upon him, “La La Land” actually finds little to rebel against.
Damien Chazelle quite literally projects these images of rebellion upon Mia, a protagonist who’s intrepid disposition is stunted by the grind of Hollywood. True to the title, the character is, for all intents and purposes, a rebel without a cause. In fact, her dreams to succumb to the galvanized Hollywood system fall in line with the comforts of conformity. So what is she rebelling against?
Seb’s invitation to the film is a de facto attempt to have Mia embrace those who came before her, just as his gushing of the “jazz greats” is an attempt at having her embrace nostalgia. When Mia does commit to full homage, entrusting Seb’s “you can never be too nostalgic” advice, she produces a one-act play about her Aunt in Paris and it fails…miserably. Living in the past, it seems, is not all it’s cracked up to be.
This is a film about the dangerous relationship to one’s past, not one which celebrates it, like so many critics seem to confoundedly surmise.
As Mia starts embodying the “virtues” of the past and Seb surrenders to his future of living in a modern jazz band, they come to odds with each other and themselves. It erupts into an arguement over a meal between the two. Behind them an eerie emerald green light projects through the transparent curtains.
The image is a disturbing echo of Hitchcock’s own film about the danger or recreating the past, 1958’s “Vertigo,” in which John (Jimmy Stewart) attempts to recreate his dead lover through the character of Madeline. After her successful transformation into John’s ex-lover, she’s illuminated by a green light which at both times represents a false recreation of all things living and the tone of a corpse.
Mia’s similar transformation through Seb’s obsession with the past is not as morbid as Hitchcock’s, but the sentiment is still there: why do we wish to hold so dearly onto the past that we end up destroying the present?
But where Madeline falls prey to this recreation, Mia ascends to greater heights.
Her audition at the end has her reflecting on the past through song. It is Mia’s reflection of a reflection, one step removed from the past and, as any auditioning actor will tell you, steeped solely in the present that garners her triumphant success.
Critics seem to be decidedly drawn to the comparisons of the American Hollywood Musicals of the 1950s, arguing La La Land feels stuck in the past. But its influences cheekily span from the early 20th century musicals like “Dames” to the Jacques Demy musicals that were so popular in 1960s France to its opening scene reminiscent of the 1998 Bollywood film “Dil Se…” (translated to America as “From the Heart” a play on the title of Coppola’s infamous 1982 Musical flop, “One From the Heart”), where countless extras dance atop a moving train. Chazelle drives the cultural simile home, even going as far as opening the movie with an Indian actress.
The other parallel argument is that Seb is the “white savior” of jazz, despite him representing a form of antagonism to Mia: he misses her performance, he talks over Jazz (that which he loves), and essentially belittles Mia for “wanting to feel better about herself” when he won’t take responsibility for his own unhappy success. And after Legend offers him a seat in his band (a symbolic gesture of accepting the future of jazz), he arrogantly rejects it…twice. This character is by no definition a hero, let alone a “saviour.”
But don’t tell that to the pseudo-political critical circle who are convinced the film is nothing but a liturgy of “better times” and is expunged of any contemporaneousness or, better yet, any diverse representation.
More puzzling about the argument for racism in this film is the critical oversight of John Legend’s character, which one critic described as:
“a smoothie sell-out, who may not be the villain of the piece but doesn’t make much sense as a character anyway,”
A sentiment that seems more racist than the racial rhetoric critics lazily apply.
John Legend offers Sebastian a position in his band, not only drawing the character out of his cobwebs, but ensuring his legacy to jazz isn’t tarnished. Legend, in an interview, described the song he wrote for the film as:
“a single that still has some jazz influence, but could tell it was leaning in more of a pop direction than most music you would call jazz.”
It’s because of Legend’s carrying of the torch that ensures Seb’s financial security which permits Jazz to have a place in both the mainstream audiences and the carved niches in obscure Los Angeles nightclubs.
You needn’t a film history degree to understand the roots of racism in the musical genre, the first ever of which produced 90 years ago, The Jazz Singer, not only featured blackface, but exploited the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur to guarantee its financial success. This type of cinema “divides America…” contributing nothing to the “cooperative creation of something new but assimilation to old inequalities.” (Rogin, 101)
These old inequalities can be seen challenged in Chazelle’s debut, “Musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” which featured an interracial couple dancing throughout New York, made on a shoestring budget. And the same of which are being challenged in “La La Land,” though admittedly much subtler. But the conspiratorial racist narrative wrapped around his work remains.
Rebels without a cause.
Despite the fact that Ray’s radical outlook on homosexuality and youth culture in his work set the tone for cinema for a century (even today, films like “Moonlight” harken back to similar themes), Chazelle is well aware that a mirrored attempt to project that radicalism upon a very inoffensive, parochial love story would render it as fake as the hollywood backdrops to which the act of Summer opens upon.
However both are aligned in their staunch rejection of their ancestral origins. When Mia is describing the show she’s auditioning for to Seb, she remarks “it’s like the O.C. meets Dangerous Minds. No, wait, it’s more like Rebel Without a Cause.”
One is a television show which revolves around the rich white youth of Orange County, the other is about a Caucasian teacher (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) who tries to bring order and discipline to an inner-city school.
When she compares the blend of these to “Rebel Without a Cause,” it’s so perverted from either stories, Seb can detect she hasn’t seen it or worse simply doesn’t understand it.
“I guess the joke’s on history?” Seb would later jest.
And the present, apparently. Critics bemoan a film which is obviously hyper-critical of nostalgia and thus begs the audience to consider their time and place now, even in a cultural landscape obsessed with its own conception like Hollywood.
This is where the third act repels the phantoms of the “Hollywood ending.” Mia doesn’t fall in love with Seb, a personification the past, she leaves him. But not before she descends into the catacombs of history once more at his Jazz nightclub.
Chazelle follows Mia’s entrance with her new husband as they stroll past the colourful billboard of Mia’s near-present alter-ego plastered upon the black and white brick wall of her ex-lover’s nightclub: a constant haunting reminder to Sebastian of both the tumultuousness of the past and the ever-fleeting present.