In a year of many excellent films, one dud has risen to the top of the awards heap: Damien Chazelle’s nostalgia-soaked, Hollywood navel-gazing musical “La La Land,” which debuted at the Venice Film Festival in October and became an instant darling. By the time it was released in the United States in the first week of December, viewers and critics alike were calling it an Oscar favorite.
“La La Land” follows the lives of jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and struggling actress/barista Mia (Emma Stone) in a dreamy 2016 Los Angeles reminiscent of 1950s Hollywood. As film critic A.O. Scott of The New York Times put it, “The real tension in ‘La La Land’ is between ambition and love, and perhaps the most up-to-date thing about it is the way it explores that ancient conflict.”
At the Golden Globes, “La La Land” received seven nominations and won in every single category in which it was nominated, including Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Motion Picture in its genre, setting a record. It has already received eleven British Academy Film Awards, the most for a single film in 2016.
“La La Land” was perhaps slated for success from the beginning with its star-studded cast. The film’s stars are the closest thing we have to a modern Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Beloved duo Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are known for their repeated unions in “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” “Blue Valentine,” and “Gangster Squad.” The film also features soul-singer John Legend in a supporting role, plus a soundtrack and script from the masterminds behind the 2014 Oscar winner “Whiplash.”
In the film-heavy month of December, it seemed like “La La Land” was about the only movie anyone could talk about, despite its limited initial release. In a year of political ferment and cultural division, I was hoping the defining film of 2016 would be a little more … diverse.
The truth of the matter is that while “La La Land” has been praised abundantly for its originality, it offers little that hasn’t been done before. Two young people living in Hollywood struggling to make it big as artists? That is a tale as old as time. “La La Land” has achieved enormous success simply by recycling the same Old Hollywood concepts audiences have enjoyed for decades, all while being lauded as “groundbreaking.” Its romantic plot isn’t a new one, nor is it set in a new place, and its romantic leads look just about the exact same as all of the famous couples we’ve seen before: white, young, and beautiful.
This is especially notable when its box office competitors, films like “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” “Fences,” and “Loving,” offer stories that haven’t been told before about types of people not frequently celebrated in Hollywood. Regardless of whether these films are superior or inferior to “La La Land,” the fact remains that they present issues and perspectives – the contributions of women of color in science, biracial couples, poverty, queer relationships – that need to be talked about. Yet “La La Land” continues to dominate American audiences’ conversations.
Furthermore, the film, with its focus on jazz, a historically African American musical genre, mostly leaves out black characters. A movie critic at USA Today noted that white protagonist Seb’s crusade to “revitalize jazz” positions him as a white savior of sorts due to “his quest (and eventual success) to save the traditionally black musical genre from extinction, seemingly the only person who can accomplish such a goal.”
In this time of cultural and political dissension and debate, I’d like to see our “best film of 2017” represent a more forward-looking perspective, not a tired rehash of an idealized past. Although art has an obligation to energize and bring joy, at what point does escapism into a whitewashed illusion become dangerous?
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