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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  • Ann Thomas

    I too hate the societal attitude of “follow your dream no matter what.” Lots of relationships suffer from that attitude, and it promotes a lot selfishness. But I thought the ending to the film was subtle enough that it somewhat raised the question of “Is this all worth it?” It would be enlightening to discuss this film with some young people and see what they think after viewing the film. It would be a good opening to discussing the whole subject of loyalty and also career vs family and those we love.

  • porcupineman1454

    I don’t hate La La Land, because I do not waste my time on “hating” movies. This silly article is seriously out-of-place on this site.

    • Dean Bruckner

      Not with me. Maggie Gallagher is a first rate writer, intellect and advocate of family and faith. Men need emotion too.

      • porcupineman1454

        You are entitled to your opinion, although I’m not sure what “men need emotion too” has to do with anything being discussed.

        • Dean Bruckner

          It seems you prove my point.

          • porcupineman1454

            In what way?

          • KenBob

            Wow! Not only are you argumentative but also very defensive. Why is that?

          • porcupineman1454

            How am I being argumentative OR defensive? All I asked was in what way. Please stop deflecting and answer the question, if you can. If not, that’s okay.

          • KenBob

            I understand you don’t like the use of the word “hate” in the title. Although the author was using hyperbole, perhaps the word “hate” is too strong. Though I do not personally share your opinion, I respect it none the less.
            Although Dean Bruckner was probably making his own point in the comment above, not speaking of the author, the idea that “men need emotion too” was indeed addressed in the movie.
            Why you continue to gripe about the comments of others is the issue I am addressing to you. With all the different things discussed in the article and the comments, why do you continue to point the reader’s attention back to you by criticizing the opinions of others.
            Did I answer your question correctly? Please feel free to criticize me for my rhetoric.

          • porcupineman1454

            My “griping about the comments of others” is more accurately called “responding to those who have responded to me.” If you don’t want me to gripe with your comments, don’t reply to me.

          • KenBob

            No problem.

    • Pretty Good Year

      This article isn’t “silly” at all. Ms. Gallagher makes excellent points about this film and what it says about our culture.

      • porcupineman1454

        It is “silly” to waste your energy and emotions “hating” a movie. A better title and focus for the article would have been “Why La La Land’s core message is false” or something of the kind.

        The younger generations use such strong language to describe things, but somehow I doubt the author of this article actually “hates” La La Land. Reserve your hatred for things that actually matter.

        • Pretty Good Year

          It’s a headline. Headlines are meant to grab your attention. I’d say you should reserve your criticism for more pressing things instead of nitpicking an author’s word choice.

    • Mo86

      It’s people like you who refuse to understand the impact pop culture things like movies, shows and music have on our country, especially on young people.

      • porcupineman1454

        Huh? I never said anything of the kind. You are quite the expert at putting words in mouths.

  • BTP

    A story about two people crazy in love with their ambitions, who have to keep overcoming the lovers that fate throws in their path.

  • Marie

    I thought the movie was supposed to be a tragedy. I thought it was clear that she regretted leaving Sebastian when she saw him with her new husband. I thought she realized she’d made a mistake, but couldn’t go back because she was married to another man.

    I could be wrong, but maybe not.

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