This review contains spoilers.
In a rare bit of serendipity for The English Student, La La Land very pointedly did not win the Oscar for Best Picture on Sunday. Although I liked the film, I’m quite glad it didn’t.
Our Heroes are Seb, a jazz musician recently fired from his job as a live pianist in a restaurant for refusing to stick to the setlist, and Mia, an aspiring actor caught in a soul-destroying grind of ever more humiliating auditions while working in a coffee shop.
Both are cliches. So it’s appropriate that, in the most ubiquitous Hollywood cliché of all, they fall in love.
To the film’s credit, it is fully aware of its cliched-ness; in fact, its awareness is chiefly where its very great charm comes from. It’s a deliberate, knowing throwback to Old Hollywood: all nostalgic musical refrains (“City of Stars” gives a good feel for the atmosphere of the film), soft-focus views of Los Angeles, pastel colours, vaguely vintage-y costumes just modern enough to be plausible, all wrapped up in that very special brand of surrealism you only get in old-fashioned musicals, where the world literally stops for the characters.
The one thing that (maybe) elevates the film from merely “charming” to “interesting” is its double ending. Following a long series of difficulties as Seb and Mia pursue their separate artistic paths, the film presents its first ending: a romanticised montage of Seb and Mia’s relationship, set to Seb’s nostalgic piano theme, ending in marriage and children, perfect Hollywood happiness. (Because, do you see? That’s what success means: not achieving your artistic goals, but getting the girl!) The second ending, though, the one we implicitly understand as the “real” one, sees Mia framed as, basically, a total bitch (her clothes, her posture, the way she clearly hasn’t told her husband about her previous relationship with Seb, all mark her out as a sell-out, a falsehood) for a) marrying someone who is Not Seb, b) being far more successful than Seb, and c) not being Pure of Art, taking whatever jobs come her way.
Anyway. That double ending’s an admission of the artificiality of the film’s own genre, the fictionality of the artistic tradition it’s participating in – a kind of ironising postmodern gaze. Except that it’s also charmingly earnest about that art, claiming the artistic value of its nostalgic aesthetic as more perfect, both more fragile and more enduring, than life.
The film’s not quite committed enough to this double gaze to see it right through: it can’t let Seb and Mia be friends, or even just happy for each other, instead plumping for Hollywood tragedy and manpain in its “realistic” second ending, clinging to art’s false binaries as if the value of love is negated by its ending. (Seb will Never Get Over Mia! Never!)
That’s one of the reasons La La Land didn’t deserve Best Picture. (Or, to be honest, any Oscar; Emma Stone’s performance as Mia is fine but not, I’d say, Best Actress material.) There are others: its appropriation of black culture, the misogynist overtones I’ve hinted at above, its reactionary nostalgia. For me, the key reason is that, for all its undeniable romance, it’s simply not doing anything new or interesting. It has nothing to say that is not about itself.
La La Land is beautifully shot and lovingly directed. It’s a real pleasure to watch, and it makes the world seem a little brighter for a couple of hours (which is no small feat in itself). But it adds nothing to the sum of human cultural achievement – and, to my mind, the Oscars should reward nothing less.