A Cynic’s Love Letter To ‘La La Land’
Musicals are right up alongside country music and jazz as things people hate as a badge of honour.
When I was 12 years old, my friends and I had a ritual. We would arrive at school 20 minutes early, all cradling thick journals we’d spilled handwritten lyrics into the night before; we would gather around an old Vinnies couch up the back of our rowdy co-ed public school class, and then we’d sing.
We sang every track from Avril Lavigne’s Let Go, we sang Nelly and Kelly’s ‘Dilemma’, Eminem, and everything else you’d expect from kids in the early-2000s, but we also took all opportunities to expand our repertoire. One day someone snuck a screening of There’s Something About Mary and was introduced to The Foundations’ ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’. Once we’d seen Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta Jones in flapper dresses, it was all about Chicago. The rest of the class would eventually file in each morning to find half a dozen ponytailed girls in culottes strutting and confessing to murdering their husbands. The whole thing was somehow intensely private and also the exact opposite of that.
It’s no huge surprise that I’ve changed since then. I live in another country; I’ve lost touch with friends; I have trouble speaking in public, let alone singing. But what’s more bizarre is the degree to which I’d completely lost this memory. Last week I walked into La La Land expecting to dislike it. Despite the near-faultless reviews it’s received and my respect for all cast and crew involved, I told my friends (the new kind that didn’t know the Velma Kelly-worshipping tween) that “I don’t really like musicals” and truly believed it.
I don’t even know where that lie began.
Making A Song And Dance About It
La La Land is not just a musical, but a musical that loves musicals. Its opening sequence sees brightly-clad young people with painted smiles dancing atop their cars on a busy LA overpass. It’s packed with allusion and reference to Old Hollywood classics like An American In Paris and Singin’ In The Rain. Its characters, a struggling yet fiercely traditionalist jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) and a talented young actress who moved from a small town to the city to make it big (Emma Stone) are capital-C clichés — but purposefully so.
Writer and director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) has burrowed down through 60 years of old story and art and song and dance and fashion and forged himself a diamond. What should buckle under the weight of familiarity, becoming derivative or contrived, instead just glints with nostalgia. It’s something Chazelle takes pride in. “As a movie fan, as a music fan, as a fan of Los Angeles, a fan of so many of these things, I felt permission to explicitly celebrate these things [and] fill the screen to the brim with things I personally love,” he told The Verge.
But what to make of the film if you don’t love those things?
Musicals (of both the stage and screen) are right up alongside country music and jazz as things people hate as a badge of honour — and the fact that La La Land is a musical about a white dude convincing everyone to like jazz should make it all the more unlikeable. You can read a lot into these kinds of different cultural distastes. Country music, for instance, is coded heavily with the rural working class; jazz, with pretension. Distancing yourself from the musical could be, at least subconsciously, a statement against camp. Musical theatre has long been seen as the domain of ‘divas’ and the LGBTIQ community — some shirk the whole genre in fear of being seen as part of that world, others do so as they simply don’t relate to the perceived tenor of its works. It’s all flash, and noise and hearts bleeding all over sleeves.
I fall (fell?) into the latter camp. I was the kind of quiet teenager who blasted their feelings through the loud indie men on their bedroom stereo. I learned that brooding was sexy — even better when done behind a sweeping side-fringe. I found there was a ‘coolness’ to not caring, or at least not giving the outward appearance of doing so; and that the best kinds of love stories starred men so emotionally stunted they had to literally scream into “the infinite abyss” to feel human.
Those are hard ideas to reconcile with the image of Gene Kelly leaping off lampposts and jigging after kissing Debbie Reynolds.
The “I don’t like musicals” defence is almost always punctured with ease due to a pretty limited understanding of how broad the genre really is. To think solely of Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire is to set yourself up for failure — their films have aged like any others from the period and, as such, are a required taste for newcomers. Instead think of Grease and Rocky Horror and Moulin Rouge. Think of Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Think of The Lion King. Cynical teen or not, Disney raised us on this.
There’s also an argument to be made that musicals as a whole are in broad resurgence. They have transcended their much-maligned cameo TV episodes of the ’90s and 2000s for more purposeful and self-reflexive full series like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The guys behind South Park have a swag of Tony Awards for The Book of Mormon. Hamilton exists.
For me personally, as unlikely as it seems, La La Land was a turning point — or more accurately, a gateway drug. The romance is idyllic but bittersweet, Stone and Gosling are charming yet cynical, and all the nostalgia that Chazelle is so openly enamoured of bleeds — often jarringly so — into the realistic present-day. The LA of La La Land shines bright through three layers of celluloid before occasionally going up in flames (once literally) in the projector.
Many critics have noted that this was the film we needed in 2016. In many ways, that’s true. It’s full of joy and hope and small moments of beauty splashed indulgently across the screen. It was a total pleasure to float away with — the ugly world locked in my phone screen, out of sight. But I think it’s short-sighted to constrain or quantify that pleasure in its relation to political frustration or the arbitrary hell we’ve locked ourselves in for this calendar year.
La La Land, for me, was a small but crucial escape from cynicism I’ve felt for more than a decade. It reminded me of how beautiful it is to make yourself vulnerable in doing something you love, and how magic could be used to sketch inner worlds rather than the next dark clue I have to solve in a prestige HBO drama.
I walked home after the film, on what was one of the first nights this month hot enough to do so bare-legged, listening to the soundtrack and committing the words to memory. After I got through the door, I played a track for my partner. I sang him a dorky song, like I so proudly would have done for my Year 7 crush, and I watched him smile.
La La Land is in cinemas from Boxing Day.