Jeff Yang: "La La Land" is a pat on the back to itself that Hollywood doesn't deserve
The popularity of its nostalgia prompts some uncomfortable questions, he writes
Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a frequent contributor to radio shows including Public Radio International’s “The Takeaway” and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” He is the co-author of “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action” and editor of the graphic novel anthologies “Secret Identities” and “Shattered.” The views expressed are his own.
The announcement that “La La Land” had received 14 Oscar nods — tying the record for most nominations for a single motion picture — was met with a sigh of resignation by those who found Damien Chazelle’s wistful homage to the classic Hollywood musical overrated, cliché or simply put, kind of boring.
Count me among them. Chazelle’s film is a song-and-dance extravaganza with actors who can’t really sing or dance; it’s a movie about artistic dedication that would rather loft trite sight gags — Ryan Gosling glumly bopping the ‘80s karaoke classic “Take On Me” on a keytar! — than show the blood-and-tears process of actually creating art; it’s a romance that, in place of a fair-play resolution of the central love story, tacks on a fantasy epilogue designed to send audiences out grinning at an unmerited happy ending.
It’s modestly entertaining in junior varsity Baz Luhrmann fashion, but not much more so than the endless parade of live musicals that network TV has produced over the past few years. But even its biggest champions would likely agree that it doesn’t deserve to end up as the most heavily accoladed film in motion picture history.
The fact that it likely will, given its record-breaking sweep at the Golden Globes, is a tragedy.
Because this is a year in which more deserving works and performances are abundant. And after multiple years in which people of color have been starkly underrepresented at the awards — years that led to the perennial trending of April Reign’s hashtag #OscarsSoWhite — those works and performances prominently feature African-Americans: Barry Jenkins’ lyrical and transcendent “Moonlight;” Denzel Washington’s letter-perfect adaptation of August Wilson’s passion play “Fences;” the hugely important fact-based drama “Hidden Figures.”
Each of these films is commercially successful and critically lauded. Each confronts enormously difficult and relevant issues: racism, homophobia, the generational cycle of violence, the erasure of women of color from our nation’s historical narrative.
Compared to these works, “La La Land” is what its title promises: A slight and slightly nonsensical love letter from Hollywood to itself — or, even more bluntly, an acrobatic kissing of its own well-cushioned ass.
And the fact is, Hollywood doesn’t deserve it. It hasn’t earned it. And if “La La Land” wins, it’ll be a testimony to just how much work it still really has to do.
Because “La La Land” is at its heart all about longing for an era in which showy choreography and saturated color could elevate inconsequential first-world troubles into epic distraction. One where — other than John Legend — only white people matter enough to have dialogue, and where Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian can be unironically presented as saving jazz from black sellouts, like Legend’s character.
The point being that, in and of itself, “La La Land’s” effervescent nostalgia is harmless. But when examined against the context of its rivals, it prompts uncomfortable questions. Because in today’s Trumpmerica, longing for a “simpler era” has a set of concealed teeth.
As Alison Willmore wrote for Buzzfeed, 2016 was the year that nostalgia turned on us: “It turned on us in minor ways, in how cynically and inauspiciously it was used to leverage sequels — ‘Bridget Jones’ Baby,’ ‘Zoolander 2,’ ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ — that no one seemed to want. And it turned on us in large, frightening ways, in the war cry of ‘Make America great again,’ which brought with it the question of when the country was last ‘great,’ and for whom.”
It’s long been a science fiction corollary that only white people can experience time travel as a thrilling, exotic adventure; everyone else will end up facing hell. As Rufus, the chrono-tripper played by Malcolm Barrett in the NBC series “Timeless” notes, when you’re black, “There is literally no place in American history that’s awesome.”
So what does it mean if this bright-dyed piece of nostalgic chiffon is elevated over more substantial and meaningful competing works at the Academy Awards, works that happen to star African-Americans and highlight African-American concerns? It will mean Hollywood has symbolically revealed its desire to turn back the clock, and turn back the hard-won progress that we’ve seen in the past 50 years, the past eight, even in the past 18 months. It will be tantamount to stating that people of color are too loud, demanding, complicated. If only they’d only come out by moonlight. If only we could put them behind fences. If only they’d remain hidden figures.
If only we could make American movies great again.