The Nostalgia of La La Land

It seems that everyone and their dog has been to see La La Land this past weekend and I was no exception. Oh, yes, I succumb to herd instinct just as well as anyone, although the Golden Globe wins very nearly put me off (I perversely don’t like films that make a clean sweep of things). But I wanted to make up my own mind and I rather like musicals: West Side Story, An American in Paris and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg are among my favourite films ever.

So here’s my verdict (spoilers ahead, so don’t read now if you are planning on seeing it): sweet and very nostalgic, a piece of escapism for hard times, but a bit too self-congratulatory for my taste.  And by that, I don’t mean the endless film references, which I quite enjoyed.

Scene from Lala Land, from Indiewire.
Scene from Lala Land, from Indiewire.

First of all, the good bits. The music was very enjoyable, even though I would describe the singing of the male and female leads as brave rather than impressive. Even the white mansplaining of jazz did not disturb me as much as it did other viewers, because I am all about promoting the love of jazz in whatever form. Admittedly, I would agree with the character played by John Legend, who says the best way to keep jazz alive is not to enshrine it in a museum, but to keep on experimenting with it and updating it. The love story had both a floaty-happy feel to it, but was not overly sentimental, there was a hint of realism (and of the screwball comedies of the 1930s).

However, what irritated me was the supposed highlight of the film, when Mia auditions for the role of her life, to be filmed in Paris. She talks/sings about following your dream, being creative and different, trying your best – and this is Hollywood at its most cloying self-delusional state. This is Hollywood as it would like to believe it is: pushing the boundaries, open to new things. They think they want the eccentrics and misfits and true originals, when in fact most of the time they are focused on the box office results and keep remaking old successes (Beauty and the Beast, Ghostbusters) or sequel after sequel of tried and tested favourites, like X-Men 234 or Fast and Furious 32 or whatever number they’ve reached.

Some random film poster of the type we see so many of lately...
Some random film poster of the type we see so many of lately…

Also, if the message of the film was that you can’t have it all: the outstanding career, fame, success and the soulmate of your dreams, it nevertheless reiterated the idea of ‘follow your passion’, ‘don’t give up’, ‘you can excel at some thing’. But what about those of us who have only average talents, who end up with middling lives, a so-so relationship, a family they sometimes love to pieces but occasionally resent, a career that doesn’t live up to expectations but pays most of the bills, perhaps express some of their talent as hobbies at weekends? About 85% of people (rough estimate) end up like that (and that’s the best case scenario, for others will struggle to make ends meet or develop any talents at all). Well, I suppose life would become unbearable if we didn’t believe ourselves capable of moving outside that 85%? And if we are already resigned to it, then we probably head off to see La La Land and other cosy nostalgic fare with occasional flashes of inspiration. A mug of tea which reminds us of the ballerina or astronaut or Nobel Prize Winner we knew we were going to become.

Nostalgia, of course, does well in times of uncertainty and anxiety about world events. Comfort reading and comfort viewing will thrive in the era of melancholy that ‘nothing is as good as it used to be’, combined with the ‘Weltschmerz’ of directionless panic, the sensation of trying to build on quicksand and having doors slammed in your face. So I don’t blame La La Land for playing the nostalgia card.

But perhaps it’s worth remembering that nostalgia was a term coined in the late 17th century by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer, to refer to the seeming depression displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting far away from home. It was more than homesickness, and returning home did not always cure them – sometimes it even killed them. As any expat returning ‘home’ knows: home has moved on. Nostalgia is not the longing for a specific place, but for a different time, an idealised time which most likely never existed, when things were simpler, choices more clear-cut.

Nostalgia, from
Nostalgia, from

The alternative dream of Sebastian and Mia in La La Land remains beautiful and precious because it was never given a chance. In reality, it may well have descended into incompatible aspirations, rancour and petty arguments. I had my own Sebastian in high school, the only person who ever held me to account over my writing ambitions and who believed I had the talent. I used to wonder how much we might have achieved together, but the truth is…

Life and the relentless day-to-day of it makes mincemeat of us all. Uncertainty and mess is all that we’ve got. The desire for rest and order and beauty is our only weapon against it. Call it nostalgia, if you will.


28 thoughts on “The Nostalgia of La La Land”

  1. That’s the thing, isn’t it, Marina Sofia? Life really doesn’t ever turn out the way it does in the Hollywood Dream Factory. And we can wonder ‘what if…’ all we want. But, as you say, what we have is our lives. Still, it does sound as though you enjoyed the film overall, and I couldn’t possibly agree more with your views about jazz.

  2. Interesting post. I’ve seen all the hype about the film but knew nothing about it. And it sounds to me ironic in the way that it champions the individual when we all know how formulaic cinema is nowadays (which is why I rarely watch modern films). I certainly agree with you in the desire for rest and order and beauty, though I think in this world we’re unlikely to see it.

    1. That was the paradox that got me: I could see a small indie film making that point, but it seemed somewhat misplaced when a juggernaut production makes it…

  3. I might watch this eventually. As a bit of easy entertainment. After reading your review, I won’t expect too much. Especially not of the singing. 🙂
    Hollywood’s idea of Paris is very often painful.

    1. It must have been hard work for the actors to get their singing and dancing to that level, actually, but perhaps there were plenty of musical stars who could have taken the part. Actually, the scenes with Paris as a backdrop (stylised sets, very much American in Paris ballet interlude) were quite lovely. There wasn’t much of Paris there beyond that…

  4. I’m so relieved: you’ve expressed my own responses to a tee. After all the hype I was expecting something a bit more…I don’t know, original? It’s full of cliched storylines, stock characters, and so-so singing and dancing – though the opening sequence on the jammed freeway is a tour de force (all one shot, i think). It needed stronger support characters; Seb’s sister looked promising early on, then disappears. Mia’s flatmates are only there to share a dance or two. I was puzzled too by the electric funk band scenes: Mia seems disappointed, and they both seem to think he’s sold out, but I thought it was one of the best numbers in the film! And Seb got to play a free-form keyboard solo that soared. Maybe i have no musical taste. But surely that was John Legend’s point: bring jazz back up to date, make it new again. So what does Seb do? Open a jazz bar that could have been Paris in the forties or fifties. Sorry, rant over.

    1. Ha, we are most definitely on the same wave-length. I was just musing about the lack of any memorable secondary characters when I looked at the cast list. And, as you say, I quite enjoyed the number played by The Messengers. The ensemble dance scenes were good and there could have been more of those, but I suppose the whole point was to keep the focus on the two leads.

  5. I went – and was charmed by it in a kind of thoughtful way – and the main song is still going round in my head. I didn’t mind that the two leads weren’t perfect song and dance folk – that made their characters more real to me. I loved all the references to other films. I enjoyed all the jazz and was impressed that Gosling learned to play the pieces in the film – you can always tell. The bit that perplexed me was the one woman show and subsequent audition. Anyways, I’d happily see it again and hope it does well in all the awards for being that bit different.

    1. It was charming, yes, that’s it exactly (‘cute’ was the word I uttered to my friend as we left the cinema, but I think I meant charming). It just wasn’t quite as different or impressive as I expected (‘Moulin Rouge’ comes to mind – far more adventurous). And you are right, perhaps the whole point of not picking leads who had musical training was to make it seem more ‘real’, although I did think there were quite a few Broadway stars who would have been amazing…

  6. Might eventually, or might not go see it. But I liked your comments on nostalgia, which I don’t go much for. Indeed, it’s a longing for a “different, idealised time”, and as you write so correctly, home has moved on.

  7. I haven’t seen it and suspect I won’t now after reading your review. Thank you for sparing me 🙂 I’m wary of things that are excessively hyped, and this sounds like so much of what is applauded lately – derivative, nostalgic and lacking in originality. I found the same issue with Stranger Things which was entertaining but fundamentally soulless because I’d seen it all before in a Steven Spielberg movie back in the days when it was innovative. Similarly Black Mirror: derivative. Or maybe I’m just getting old!

    1. Oh, dear, thanks for the word of warning about Black Mirror. My sons are keen to watch it on Netflix, so that was going to be our next venture after Trollhunters. I suppose it is true that there are only seven stories in the world (or whatever the number is).

  8. I don’t have any particular desire to see this but will probably watch it when it hits Netflix. Good to hear your pov.

    1. Well, I certainly would recommend it over Assassin’s Creed or Monster Trucks or the whole X men franchise or whatever else seems to be taking over our local cinemas…

  9. Oh dear, what a pity the producers decided to tread that well worn path about the American Dream being within everyone’s reach – all it takes is hard work. Try telling that to the people who live in Detroit for example where the authority has been pulling down houses where the occupants couldnt afford to pay the mortgage when the car industry jobs collapsed.

  10. Great post; you’ve got me thinking. I shall watch the film eventually; we rarely go to the cinema and this wouldn’t appeal to B so it must wait until it’s available through other means. And perhaps by then I’ll have worked out my own response to the notion of nostalgia and escapism in a world beset by complications and confusion and power mongering.

  11. I have not yet seen it but plan to (I love musicals!) so I am *not* reading your post. Not reading… That will be tough. Thanks for the post nonetheless. Perhaps we’ll talk about it IRL.

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.