It’s already an unwitting parody of itself.
We live in an age of parody. Parody men, parody women, parody marriage, parody politicians, parody scholars, parody movies, parody reality. And the quickest way to become a social or a critical or a moral or an intellectual outcast is to fail to take the parody for the genuine article — if only by noticing the parodic element in it. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land would seem rejoice in its multiple parodies — along with its own self-absorption, echoing that of its two main characters — with constant allusions to other movies, especially those out of a Hollywood past that it is ostensibly celebrating by “bringing back” the big movie musical. And yet it also seems to be expected that we will overlook all the ways in which it is unlike the movies it appears to be imitating. Or like it all the more on their account.
These begin with the fact that neither the singing nor the dancing is very good, let alone on a level with such dazzling originals as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse or any of the other greats of the past. Emma Stone as Mia has a very thin voice that can’t stand up to big production numbers, which have to be scaled down in consequence to sub-Sondheimian lugubrious recitative. Ryan Gosling is no better and, on top of that, is supposed to be a jazz purist who only seems to know a couple of tunes that are more pop than jazz. Neither of them can do more than a few basic dance steps, and they rely on the camera and computer generated imagery to provide what glitter there is to their performances together.
More important than the parody of Hollywood’s golden age, however, is the parody of the Hollywood “dream” that has so long outlived it and that La La Land goes on about endlessly. I refer, of course, to the dream of stardom. Not entirely coincidentally, this also has been updated so as to mesh nicely with the feminist dream: namely, that women should put professional dreams ahead of romantic or domestic ones while at the same time trying to hold on to some parody of the romantic in doing so. It’s a dream in the full sense: insubstantial and fantastical and unconnected to the real world.
That the movie is fantasy is stressed from the opening scene, which has singers and dancers (who don’t appear elsewhere in the film) in a big production number set on an LA freeway where traffic has come to a halt, as traffic often so does, for no apparent reason. All the cars have their windows open (a fantasy in itself) and all are playing different kinds of music on their car radios or media players. The cacophony gives way, suddenly, to one voice after another raised in song as first one then another and another driver leaps from his or her own vehicle and onto the hood or roof of another — whose occupants are miraculously not shaking their fists or drawing their guns but joining in the fun themselves. The song they sing is about how “It’s another day of sun” — i.e. happy talk that’s not shy about telling you it’s happy talk. Isn’t that what musicals are about?
The scene ends as we see Emma Stone, apparently one of only two drivers not singing and dancing with the rest, sitting behind the wheel of her Prius and studying her lines for an audition. When the traffic starts to move again, the other non-Terpsichorean, played by Ryan Gosling fiddling with a jazz tape on the cassette player of his retro convertible, turns out to be sitting behind her and impatiently blows his horn to get her attention back on the road. As he roars past her, she flips him off, and we cut to a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot where she is working as a barista across from the set used to represent Paris in Casablanca.
In the process of trying to placate a customer who has just learned that her muffin is not gluten-free, Mia has to make a quick exit on being notified by text of an audition. The next thing we see is her audition being interrupted — in the middle of an intense moment as she pretends to be bravely trying not to react emotionally to bad news from someone on the other end of an imaginary phone call — by a real phone call to the casting director. Her performance ruined, she is abruptly dismissed (“We’re good,” says the heartless director) and, taking the rest of the day off, returns to her very nice apartment (a larger-than-screen movie poster image of Ingrid Bergman decorating her wall), shared with several other girls.
Her roommates try to jolly her out of her bad news by going out on the town with her. But not before she sings, wonderingly and as best she can, about “who I am going to be” and “waiting to be found.” Already it sounds like it’s going to be a long wait. On the girls’ night out, awash in champagne that doesn’t make anyone drunk, we see another contradiction at the heart of this fantasy. On the one hand, it is implied that we are watching a kind of updated vie de Bohème with impoverished artists trying to win an audience and, so, a chance to live by doing what they love. On the other hand, it’s not like they’re starving or freezing or dying of consumption or anything. Nor is there some rich old man to supply the champagne. It’s just there. In fact, Mia and her roommates seem to live a pretty good life, as does everyone else around them in the striving (but far from starving) artist community. The only thing they don’t have — and the only thing they really want — is fame.
In other words, when you get right down to it, the “dream” that the movie celebrates, the dream that makes it La La Land and not Boulder City, Nevada (which is “back home” for Miss Stone’s Mia) is the dream of becoming a celebrity. “Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise,” wrote John Milton, “that last infirmity of noble mind,” but somehow I don’t think he had this kind of fame in mind — if only because it’s hard to see how it could be the object of a clear spirit or a noble mind. On the contrary, the lust for it must now be so widely spread among the film’s potential audience that it has no need to justify itself. One assumes that it answers some similar dream in even the most vulgar and least talented among the film’s admirers.
On Mia’s night out with the girls, she meets Mr. Gosling’s Sebastian again — just as he is being fired from his job as a lounge pianist for defying the command by his boss (J.K. Simmons) to play nothing but the most familiar Christmas music. She had stopped to hear him play a bit of the movie’s plaintive leitmotif — a song about stars, both literal and metaphorical, and dreams — and tries to pay him a compliment on his way out with his money from the tip jar. He brusquely pushes past her. This is an important moment, at least for the filmmakers, since in imagining an alternative history for the couple late in the film, they restart the relationship from this brief encounter, turning it from a push to a kiss. After that, everything is different. In the fantasy.
But of course the point of that kind of counterfactual history (as they call it when historians practice it) is that it puts what really happened and what might have happened on the same level, underlining the extent to which both are equally fantastical. After their encounter in the lounge, Mia presumably goes home and we backtrack through Sebastian’s day, beginning with his bird-bedaubed escape from the traffic jam. He comes home to find his sister in his apartment and the relationship between the two of them is limned to no apparent purpose, along with a bit of Seb’s backstory.
Not that we need to know this. He has been “ripped off,” we learn, and has reacted by leaving his apartment looking as if he has just moved in. Perhaps he has. But his sister wants him to clean it up, snap out of his low spirits, and meet a nice girl she has in mind for him. He pushes her out the door and we never see her again, or the girl she wants him to meet at all. Quite what the point of this scene is, we never learn, but it does give him a chance to tell his sister that he is playing rope-a-dope with life and will someday rise from his own ashes, like the Phoenix. Good to know that.
Well, of course the two predestined lovers have to get together again, meeting cute two or three times more before (apparently) setting up house together. Their courtship (if that’s what it is) is punctuated by a couple of what are obviously meant to be old fashioned production numbers, one set among the stars at the same Planetarium where a crucial scene from Rebel Without a Cause was filmed. Anyway, you know how it goes. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back again, all while both are pursuing their celebrity dreams. But once those dreams seem to have a chance of coming true, we are meant to take it for granted that they are incompatible with the romantic dream of their love for each other.
The alternative history of the relationship supplied at the end suggests that they could only ever have been together by putting love ahead of ambition and, whatever the audience may be persuaded to believe about their dancing among the stars, or becoming stars themselves, it isn’t going to believe that anyone among today’s Hollywood strivers would do that. In the old days, of course, they would have achieved both love and stardom, but now musicals have to be more realistic, I guess. Mr C. wants no explicit value judgment as to which course, love or ambition, is to be preferred, allowing instead the balance to be tipped by what actually happens — for which no other reason is given than that it does happen.
At one point John Legend, playing the leader of a band who wants Seb to join it, asks him the key question about his jazz snobbery: “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” It’s a question Mr. Chazelle seems to have answered for himself by trying to add a touch of realism to the always lighter-than-air fantasy of the traditional Hollywood musical. I have even heard it suggested that the point of having singing and dancing stars who aren’t very good at singing and dancing is to make it look more real, though to me it only accentuates the parody that young people have been taught not to notice. Both Mia and Sebastian at low moments say: “It’s time to grow up” — and yet it never is! Yay! Perhaps the real dream behind the dream of celebrity is the dream of being children forever.