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.
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.
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.
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.