La La Land (2016) is a brilliant film in many ways. The shots are meticulously and beautifully arranged, colour seeps out of every scene and the onscreen chemistry is impeccable. The structure of the film is succinctly stylistic and the use of the love song ‘City of Stars’ as a melodic hook, successfully captures the relationship between the two lead characters as it ebbs and flows throughout the film. La La Land is the perfect award season film and provides an ephemeral escapism for golden age cinephiles... It cannot be overlooked, however, that La La Land also presents a fetishisation for a bygone era where racism, sexism and homophobia was (and continues to be) rife. It is, in essence, a romanticised, heterosexual love story without difference. The film is decidedly un-revolutionary and focuses on the relationship between two struggling artists in modern day Los Angeles. Mia (played by Emma Stone) is a wannabe actress struggling through a life in LA as she is faced with constant rejection as well as the day-to-day banality of her job in a studio lot coffee shop (vaguely patronising given that this is now the go-to career for countless individuals). Her love interest Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling) is an idealistic jazz pianist who, heroically and single-handedly wants to ‘save jazz’. While both characters are somewhat relatable, given their struggles to achieve dreams and find love (if that’s your thing), the pair are also painfully conventional; fuelling the harmful trope of white, slim, middle-class and heterosexual couple.
Gosling’s profoundly irritating character, Sebastian, is perhaps one of the biggest pitfalls of La La Land. Emma Stone’s Mia, who falls for Sebastian and his ‘artistic talents’ serves to reward his initially bad tempered character for his white-hero narcissism. Indeed, Sebastian is presented as Mia’s saviour all too often, particularly when he shows up unannounced to her home in order to ‘save her’. The fact that Sebastian- an adored white man - wants to single-handedly ‘save jazz’ is perhaps the most frustrating and disappointing factor in La La Land. Sebastian is presented to us as a jazz purist who dislikes the new incarnations of the genre, obsesses over an old jazz club that once hosted ‘the greats’ (now a tapas place), and owns a stool once used by Hoagy Carmichael. Sebastian’s fetishisation of jazz is made more disturbing through his white appropriation of black culture- even failing to acknowledge anything about the cultural and racial heritage of jazz, throughout. When Sebastian is invited by an old friend, Keith (John Legend), to play keys in ‘The Messengers’, he criticises the idea of having to play ‘impure’ jazz, but is happy to ride along with the band and its success, despite his looming disrespect. The suggestion alone that jazz is ‘dead’ or ‘dying’ is grotesquely short sighted. Sebastian’s character leeches off of black culture and has forged a career through jazz- only ever making a superficial connection to its cultural (and political) histories.
Emma Stone’s character is decidedly less dislikeable than Sebastian. At the start of the film Mia’s enthusiasm for LA is fading, in the films second musical piece ‘Someone in the Crowd’ Mia is being desperately encouraged to come out to a party with her friends as she has lost enthusiasm for parties in ‘big glass houses’ Despite her initial disinterest Mia gets dressed up and goes to the party only to be disappointed once again by the pretentiousness of both her surroundings and her peers. Suffice it is to say that the film does nothing to shatter glass ceilings, let alone those ‘big glass houses’. One of the most brilliant sequences in the film is the montage of Mia’s various auditions and rejections. Emma Stone’s acting talent shines through in a particular scene where she is auditioning for a role: we watch as Mia’s expressions merge perceptively from happy, to worried, to sad, before she is rudely interrupted by the execs auditioning her. Unsure of where to go next, she is rejected for the role but remains plucky, upbeat and continues to pursue her acting dreams. When Mia meets Sebastian, however, her character seems to change: her playful and enthusiastic traits are replaced with a nagging tendency. At several points she appears disappointed with Sebastian’s personal stagnation, which drives him to take a job he doesn’t like and eventually leads to the breakdown of their relationship. As a result, Mia decides to leave the city, seemingly giving up on her dreams while a heartbroken Sebastian remains in LA. It is at this point that Sebastian ‘saves’ Mia from herself by finding her at her family home and taking her to an audition that then allows her to pursue her dreams. Mia’s character seems to get lost in her relationship with Sebastian, who proceeds to prop her up like a mansplaining puppeteer throughout the latter half of the film.
The final scenes of the film reveal the lead characters several years on from their relationship. Mia is a successful actress, while Sebastian owns a successful jazz bar. Both characters have achieved their dreams, but at the sacrifice of their relationship. In a chance encounter with one another at Sebastian’s jazz club the two reminisce on what could have been if they had stayed together: if Sebastian had followed Mia to Paris and the two had gotten married and had a child (and so on). Instead, it is tediously revealed that Mia has both a child and a husband and has become even more, excruciatingly conventional. Sebastian, however, appears to be single and uncommitted. The film perpetuates many gender stereotypes here, particularly with regards to the way in which Mia’s success - both as an actor and as a woman- appears to be tied up with childrearing, marriage and sacrifice. Sebastian, however, is able to continue with his life, undisturbed by social/marital coercion.
La La Land is a worryingly ignorant piece of cinema, in a time where America has just sworn in an exploitative billionaire, war monger and sexual molester as President and where inequality is still ever present across the globe. It is a piece of cinema that represents filmic escapism at its most toxic and apathetic. La La Land - despite all its visual merits - is merely a white story about white people that not only ignores the cultures it appropriates but also presents problematic and worn-out gender stereotypes. Whilst many will appreciate that La La Land is a ‘pretty’ piece of filmmaking, it is considerably disappointing (and woefully unsurprising) to see yet another offering of such regressive characters and ideologies in a piece of contemporary cinema.
Words by Jennifer Shearman