By now you’ve no doubt seen or at least heard of the Oscar favourite musical film La La Land. Starring Hollywood heartthrobs Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and directed by Whiplash wunderkind Damien Chazelle, the film follows the fortunes of a struggling actress (Stone) and an idealistic jazz pianist (Gosling) trying to make it big in Los Angeles.
So far, on the surface at least, La La Land appears to be an unqualified success. It’s already a favourite with critics and viewers alike, with an impressive 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a handsome $92 million at the box office worldwide. The film won a record-breaking seven Golden Globes, and has been nominated for a record-equalling 14 Oscars.
However, as so often happens with success stories, particularly in a digital age where publications pay a premium for contrarian hot takes, alongside the accolades the detractors have emerged. Turns out there’s a lot to pick apart in the relatively simple story of love versus art in contemporary LA. Chazelle has been accused of touting a white saviour narrative, and as Lee Tran Lam lamented in the Sydney Morning Herald last week, Gosling and Stone are no Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds.
I have my own issues with La La Land, and with Chazelle’s work in general. I hated the opening number, the atrociously titled ‘Another Day of Sun’, even while I appreciated the brilliant camerawork and the energetic (if cloying) direction. Chazelle’s characters (and perhaps he) never seem to understand that art is for everyone, not just for obsessive, cranky, ‘ingenious’ men, who are constantly distracted by beautiful but less motivated women (another common theme in Chazelle’s often testosterone-charged writing).
Still, I enjoyed the film despite these reservations (and, yes, in spite of the poor singing) – it brought me joy; it entertained me. Beyond the technical metrics of success, up to which I firmly believe La La Land measures, I couldn’t deny how it made me (and others in the audience) feel. You may not like the ideas or the politics of La La Land; you may not relish its existence. But the fact remains that in almost every technical respect, the film is a master work. Gosling and Stone are arguably two of the last true Old-Hollywood-style stars (I would’ve loved to see the great Nora Ephron get her hands on them). The film is beautifully shot and cleverly directed; it is light and bright and glamorous.
If we take our cue from Lam’s rallying cry, that La La Land is a ‘terrible film’ that will ‘win Best Picture at the Oscars anyway’, we can see that the world of arts criticism is diminishing, blurring, changing. Some of the change is great (increased platforms for new and diverse critical voices, for example), and some of it is less so. In the current publishing environment, the premium on opinion, especially contrarian opinion, has risen sharply. I’m one such writer who has benefited from both these changes. Would I get quite so many by-lines if the definition of a critic was not as broad as it is now? Would I earn as much money (OK, not that much money, but still) if the opinion writer was not so sought after?
In the current publishing environment, the premium on opinion, especially contrarian opinion, has risen sharply.
But as these lines between criticism and opinion blur and merge, I fear we’re losing some vital elements of critique that mark out success and – not failure (because surely no art can really be a failure) but reduced success in art. La La Land deserves to be lampooned for its white saviour narrative, its piggish wanker protagonist who mansplains jazz to a young woman and then blames her for his failure to realise his own dreams. But does that make La La Land an inherently bad film? I don’t think so – but what do I know? I’m just an opinion writer!
Criticism is important for how it creates a blueprint for an audience to assess the value of a work. It’s a kind of contract between artist and public: acknowledging intent, facilitating discourse and ultimately offering the audience the tools to make their own assessments of a work. Critics are not meant to be cultural gatekeepers; they’re more like tour guides for the arts. Of course, opinion serves a function in this process, and no reviewer is above subjectivity. But acknowledging technical achievement – as well as that essential, indefinable element, feeling or connection to a work – is part of the contract. Disappointment at the singing ability of its stars or the simplicity of the songs doesn’t render those other important technical achievements in La La Land irrelevant; how can it, when the work brings audiences so much joy?
Acknowledging technical achievement – as well as that essential, indefinable element, feeling or connection to a work – is part of the contract.
Awards ceremonies, those actual cultural gatekeepers that begat much of this sustained discussion over La La Land’s worth, don’t help, because winning a Best Picture Oscar is just so much more complicated than whether or not a film is objectively good (or as ‘objectively good’ as any film reasonably can be). Anyone who has seen the 2004 Best Picture-winning Crash knows that.
Best Picture Oscar-winning films need to do so much: they have to be critically acclaimed works, or hits at the box-office (or, better yet, both); they have to have a good ‘narrative’ attached to them (launching the career of a new talent, like Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire, or returning a legend to the screen, like Michael Keaton in Birdman); they have to feel worthy to a collective of individuals who are slowly becoming more diverse, but are also ageing rapidly. These voters want to feel like they have laughed or learned; they want to see themselves reflected back to them on the screen. This is perhaps why so many Hollywood-insider narratives, Birdman and The Artist among recent choices, flourish when the Academy votes. So don’t take the Academy’s word for it: the Best Picture winner might not be the best picture for you.
I suspect that part of the problem with La La Land is its genre. Not only is it a musical (a controversial format that many people despise), it also has the audacity to be a romantic comedy. There’s nothing the culture snobs (most of them men) hate more than a rom-com: primarily because it is a genre for women, and probably because it’s one of the only genres in film and television that has consistently employed women, both on and off camera. How dare a mere rom-com reach for the heights of Best Picture at the Oscars?
Let’s not forget that many of these classic films that the detractors have accused La La Land of palely imitating were simple rom-coms: It Happened One Night, Funny Face, Singin’ In The Rain. In Old Hollywood, it was the rom-com, not the bloated action flick or the ‘worthy’ Oscar-bait drama, that minted stars.
The value of the increase in opinion writing is that it has opened us up to a broader range of ideas and perspectives. Had I not begun to read more recently on the erasure of diverse narratives in the arts, I might never have noticed the ickiness of Gosling’s white saviour role. Had I not come to understand how women are so often presented in the media, thanks to the writing of women who years ago would not have been allowed a platform to dissent, I wouldn’t have bristled at Emma Stone’s hapless ingénue (although to be frank, she is so luminous it hardly matters to me).
But it’s also important to be able to navigate the technique of art, and it’s the critics who help translate for us the crests and pitfalls of technique and talent in the arts. The best criticism does blend both opinion and analysis, evaluating the work in the context of the artistic world and the world at large; what defines a critic is their ability to back up their opinions with expert critical analysis. We still need that; we’re by no means experts just because we can ask Siri.
There is a place in the world for opinion and for critique, and (hopefully, considering the content of this piece) for a mixture of both. I just wonder whether we’ll suffer as artists and audiences as the lines are blended ever-closer. I worry that this new critical landscape will see a push towards films that appeal to the ‘hot take’ and engage with performative wokeness over the technical achievement of cinematic magic. In some ways I can see a broader parallel between this blending of critique and opinion, and the blending of fact and fiction in the post-Trump, post-truth landscape.
I’ll never be sad that opinions have become a commodity. So often (especially when our identities force us to the margins) we are told our opinions do not matter; the new premium on opinion says, ‘you exist, and so do your thoughts’. But they are not sacrosanct, and we need to remember to fact-check opinions with the experts (and with our own values). That’s why, in the arts, we have the critics.