The one thing I know for sure is that most Oscar voters don’t care that a film as seemingly pleasant as Damien Chazelle’s modern musical, La La Land, has proven so divisive. Even as lyrics from “City of Stars” have become inspirational memes, artists such as songwriter Elon Rutberg are calling the film “fascist.” If our current political discourse were less dictatorial, perhaps the backlash to La La might have been more restrained — at least, enough to keep fascism out of the conversation — but the film would still be emblematic of problems quaking just under the glittery tiles of the Walk of Fame, like the perpetuation of white mediocrity as superiority.
La La may not be fascist but it’s certainly a kind of propaganda, even if the filmmakers never realized that they were propagandists. Even German photographer and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl said her Nazi-era film Olympia wasn’t meant to be political. But her camera’s focus on Aryan white bodies triumphing over the world ensured that it would be. She later disavowed her participation with Nazi ideals — her documentation of African cultures was controversial, too — but that 1935 film’s context of a white supremacist power rising in the world can’t be extricated from its frames. Can we ignore the political undercurrent of La La Land, which is about nothing less than Making Hollywood and Jazz Music Great Again?
Even Matt Damon’s new alien adventure, The Great Wall, blatantly functions as propaganda, promoting communist ideals of blindly sacrificing the self for the greater good. Compare The Great Wall with Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, movies similar on the surface — human warriors underestimate the intelligence of the alien monsters they’re battling — but Verhoeven actively avoids becoming propaganda by offering context and analysis. He even explicitly borrows imagery from the U.S. Army’s anti-fascist propaganda film Why We Fight but uses it to make statements about war: You may be the oppressor when you think you’re the oppressed; think for yourself! Growing up in Nazi-occupied Holland, Verhoeven understands how film disseminates messages, willfully or not, and is careful about what messages he’s sending.
In La La, Chazelle seems blind to the political power of film. His perspective is narrow and unsurprisingly glossy, the film a throwback to the 1950s without acknowledgment of how terrible the 1950s were for marginalized communities. Chazelle has the privilege of nostalgic time travel because as a white man it’s always a good time to be alive. Tweeting about La La Land’s possible fascism, Rutberg argued that even a cursory study of the history and context of musicals (dramaturgy) could have led to a different kind of La La Land, a point with which I agree. Chazelle, who has invoked Singin’ in the Rain as one of a few inspirations, seemed to miss how critical and satirical that film actually was.
In the story, Debbie Reynolds plays the role of a lesser-known actress having to dub a star’s vocals, while in reality, lesser-known actresses Jean Hagen and Betty Noyes had to dub the vocals of the star, Debbie Reynolds. Director Gene Kelly revealed some ridiculous Hollywood standard practices to poke fun at the system from the inside. The effect was a behind-the-scenes take on how the industry discarded a certain class of people who weren’t so privileged.
La La Land, for its part, glorifies Hollywood. It offers no critique of how, for instance, African-Americans are shut out of the industry; the film shuts them out itself. Here, Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian is the man who knows the real jazz, while Keith (John Legend) is depicted as some kind of grifter, who stole Sebastian’s money and dreams, and defiles jazz with an infusion of pop. The film presents Sebastian as authentic; Keith as not. The obvious irony is that African-Americans invented jazz, but the film expects the audience to see Sebastian as the savior of the musical genre, the guy who fights against those pesky African-Americans who might want to evolve the music more toward funk (they invented that, too), instead of living as though music and life haven’t changed since the 1950s.
Chazelle doesn’t seem to know that a lot of us — including every woman, like Emma Stone’s character, who’s ever had jazz explained to her by a man — are happy that the culture hasn’t stood still. Interestingly enough, there’s another Oscar-nominated film that could teach Chazelle much about the importance of contextualizing a story to avoid falling into a propaganda trap.
Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro weaves film clips, archival footage and unpublished essays by James Baldwin (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) into a powerful examination of what happens when you erase people of color from movies. One film La La has a lot in common with, The Pajama Game, starring Doris Day, plays an integral part in Peck’s doc, which shows how that musical — a romp about a labor dispute at a pajama factory — conveniently didn’t include any nonwhite faces. (The bright colors of the costumes and much of Bob Fosse’s curiously sexless choreography are also reminiscent of La La.)
Directors George Abbott and Stanley Donen likely didn’t set out to shape how America sees its working class, but that was one of the results; in The Pajama Game, just as on Fox News, “working class” means “white.” Something similar happens in La La, where the word “dreamer” becomes — thanks to the filmmakers’ limited perspective — code for “people afforded the means to follow their passions with the distinct knowledge that others who look like them have already paved the way for their success.”
La La Land’s whitewashing spreads to the city of Los Angeles, too, despite the deceptive harmony of the first scene, in which 20-somethings of all colors suddenly rumba to Afro-Caribbean tunes on a gridlocked highway. To the casual Angeleno who commutes on a regular basis, a dance number on a highway seems just a low-hanging, quotidian commentary on how much time we spend in our cars. (Oh, that traffic in L.A.!) But that reading also ignores the painful history of highways that native Angelenos try to forget, the one where the city essentially barricaded off poor neighborhoods with concrete pylons, ensuring that segregation would be planned into our very structure. L.A. highways literally divide races and classes.
As Hitchcock would attest, the subconscious of every film viewer functions to help us make sense of certain signals — such as Marion Crane’s white and black slips representing when she’s good and evil — and it should be up to that director to control those images. But first they themselves have to be aware of the context.
Still, I must admit I felt a momentary pang of pride for my city while first watching this highway number. For the first five minutes, I was hooked — I wanted to feel good about myself and my city — but Chazelle lost me as the film came to focus on two extremely attractive white people whose only struggle is that the world has yet to offer validation of their mediocre art. Less than 30 percent of our city is white, yet all those talented people of color in the chorus soon fade into the background, like props for the stars — who possess only a fraction of the chorus’ singing and dancing skills.
In interviews, Chazelle emphasizes that he wanted to cast people who weren’t actual musical-theater triple threats, because he wanted “realism.” That’s also why he chose to record all the singing live in-scene, to catch all the little imperfections of breath. When white people show their imperfections, they’re cute and realistic, but I hesitate to think nonwhite actors would ever get that opportunity. Can you imagine a musical starring two black people who were only decent at dancing and singing being nominated for an Oscar?
Of course, Chazelle only wants “realism” when it suits his purposes. Because if this were reality, a man who can’t manage money wouldn’t likely be able to open and run any kind of successful business, let alone a jazz club. A woman who wrote and produced a bad one-woman show that nobody came to see would never get a casting call because of that performance. Every aspect of this story seems to call out “White people also have it hard!” while showing us just how easy it is for them.
It’s difficult to see even lightweight commercial art as being innocuous when you understand the power of propaganda, unintentional as it may be. The reason so many are angered by this film is that the director, its stars and some fans seem oblivious to its multiple issues. For many who’ve tweeted themselves hoarse over trying to get well-meaning people to see the insidious ways media let pretty, privileged folks off the hook (ahem, Ivanka), the embrace of a movie that slaps a smile on our social problems seems an affront.