Why I Hated La La Land

This hit movie tells us that career conquers all.

By Maggie Gallagher Published on February 27, 2017

Even taking into consideration the bizarre mix-up about Best Picture, Hollywood went gaga for the musical La La Land last night, awarding it six of fourteen Oscar nominations, including Best Director, Best Score, Best Song, Best Actress, Best Production Design, and Best Cinematography. It’s a hit not just with Hollywood but at the box office as well, earning $340 million domestically so far, before the Oscar boost. And I cannot say the film doesn’t deserve its accolades.

Damien Chazelle, at 32 the youngest man ever to win a Best Director award, has made a gorgeous film that is evocative, haunting, luminous, original, and a deeply creative postmodern twist on the musical genre that delivers most of the thrills of the classic 1940s musicals without ever becoming derivative or repetitive. It’s an extraordinary achievement and unlike either of the young men of the family I watched it with, I hated it.

Alert: major spoilers ahead.

The story begins as a classic story of two beautiful young people who meet in L.A. — a “city of magic, city of stars,” as the haunting lyric puts it, but clearly no longer City of Angels. Together they pursue their dreams both of love and success. Sebastian wants to become a jazz club singer. Mia wants to be a famous actress. The dramatic climax of the film comes after Sebastian at some personal sacrifice has given Mia the shot at her dreams, dreams she had given up on. And she chooses those dreams over him.

Love and Ambition

This is not the first time Chazelle has handled this theme. Whiplash, another extraordinary and even better movie, tells a similar story of a young adolescent man who puts love aside in order to pursue extreme excellence in his chosen field as a jazz drummer.

The difference is to the young man in that film, the girl was clearly not The girl, just a girl. And the conflict was deep and real: it would take every ounce of blood and devotion for him to master his craft. He wasn’t free at 19 to give himself to love. This is in some sense every young man’s story. Before he takes a bride he has to make himself a man.

The obstacle to love portrayed in the movie is so feeble that it’s hard to imagine why it should destroy true love.

In La La Land, Chazelle chose to sharpen the clash between love and ambition. He does so in three ways:

  1. By making the choice to leave love behind the woman’s choice, rather than the man’s, brilliantly (in the commercial sense) situating the film among the emerging and popular female empowerment dramas in which women learn they do not need a man to be happy and fulfilled. 
  2. By making the man a genuine hero — how else do you describe a guy who, after a woman has broken up with him and run home to Ohio to hide in the safety of her parents’ house, drives all night to deliver to her the message that she has a callback audition to a major movie? (She didn’t leave a forwarding address so he can’t just call her and let her know.)
  3. By portraying the obstacle to love as so feeble that it’s hard to imagine why it should destroy true love: Mia has to go to Paris for 6 months to make her movie. It’s her big break. Of course she has to go. But what is a love that cannot survive a few months in Paris? Is there no Skype? Are there no intercontinental flights?

One young online commentator described this twist on the iconic musical narrative, this “bittersweet ending,” as being more realistic, more grounded. I find it difficult to get into that young man’s head. How one can believe that however hard it is to find true love these days, becoming a famous Hollywood actress is a more “realistic” dream? Mia is not the loser for making this choice. She becomes famous and finds a new love, who seem a nice man, and they have a baby. She has it all, and has chosen correctly, because dreams are not transferable, but people can be replaced.

When Love and Family Were More Important

I was reminded of a story I once heard Judge Robert Bork tell, about getting engaged to his first wife, whom he lost at a too-young age to cancer. Claire was from a Jewish family (as Bork was not). When she brought him home to Dad, Dad asked to speak to Bork privately, pulled him aside and said “There will be a blonde coming along any minute.”

When the then-young lawyer Bork left, Claire asked him what her father had told him. “He said,” Bork reported with a puzzled expression, “that there will be a blonde coming along any minute.” “I’m gonna kill him,” Claire fumed.

“La La Land” tried to give us all the romantic feelings of the classic Hollywood musicals before ripping them away from us and substituting the idea that it is work alone on which we can rely.

I thought of that story when after Claire’s funeral, we had gathered in Judge Bork’s Connecticut home (I was a friend of one of his sons). He was grieving of course. At one point this famous scholar, former Solicitor General, Yale law professor who with Reagan’s election imminently could expect to be nominated to the Supreme Court, looked up, looked around at his home, at his children and said “I never expected to have any of this. She gave it to me.”

That was a blast from the 1950s culture, the bad old days, when Americans knew that work and success were very important, but that love, marriage, and family were even more so.

The path created by our culture between male and female is getting fainter, tougher, and overgrown with weeds that make it hard to discern. Damien Chazelle is clearly not responsible for these realities. But La La Land is a strange postmodern exercise in nostalgia, which tried to give us all the romantic feelings of the classic Hollywood musicals before ripping them away from us and substituting the idea that it is work alone on which we can rely.

If you Google La La Land, this synopsis pops up: “With modern day Los Angeles as the backdrop, this musical about everyday life explores what is more important: a once-in-a-lifetime love or the spotlight.”

Sad.

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