Early in Damien Chazelle’s romantic musical La La Land, Mia Dolan, an aspiring actress played by Emma Stone, is working as a barista near the Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank, California. After a tall, elegant looking woman who we only see from behind walks up to the counter and orders a latte, the employees at the coffee shop are transfixed. “Oh I wouldn’t think of it. It’s on the house,” the manager says, and we quickly realize that the woman, who insists on paying anyway, is a famous movie star who has already “made it.” That we never learn her name is no accident. “Movie stars are disposable,” Chazelle is telling us early on in his film. “So why exactly is Mia Dolan aspiring to fame and fortune in Hollywood?”
While Mia’s acting career is going poorly – she’s regularly dismissed from auditions with little or no comment – her romantic life is more promising. She begins a relationship with Sebastian Wilder, an aspiring jazz musician played by Ryan Gosling. It would be hard to imagine Mia or Sebastian lacking for the company of the opposite sex. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are both good looking in that all important “conventional” sense. Nevertheless, Gosling is no Fred Astaire and Stone is no Ginger Rogers. Where Astaire and Rogers seemed to enjoy every moment they were on screen, an infectious mood that gave both of them a natural charisma, neither Gosling nor Stone seems to be having much fun. “What exactly does Mia Dolan hope to express with her acting?” we wonder. Sebastian Wilder turns down a well-paid “gig” as a jazz pianist in a band led by real life jazz musician John Legend because he insists on playing his music his way, but he never seems to be able to express, either in words or on his keyboard, what he really wants. In fact, Legend, who’s a pretty good actor, says more about the future of jazz in thirty seconds than Wilder says in the whole movie.
After Mia’s self-written, one woman play goes badly, she decides to quite acting, and go back home to her parents house in Nevada. It honestly seems like a good decision. Sebastian and Mia come off like a happily married middle-class couple waiting to happen. So why are they wasting time pursuing careers as artists when neither really seems to have very much to say. Perhaps Mia should go back to school. Perhaps Sebastian, who wants to open up his own Jazz club, should considering selling real estate, or stock options, something that would allow him to save up the capital he needs to start a business. Even though Gosling utterly redeems himself as a good boyfriend when he drives all the way out to Nevada to bring Mia the news of a casting director wanting her for an audition the lead in a new movie set in Paris, by this point in a fairly long, over two hours, movie, we’re beginning to get bored. La La Land, which is well crafted and beautifully shot, still needs something to make it more than simply an exercise in style and nostalgia for old Hollywood. After Sebastian drives Mia back to the Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank, and she nails the audition, all Mia can really do is sit back and wait for a call from the studio that will determine whether she decides to continue her acting career, or look for something else. Does she get to go to Paris and become a “real” actor or not? If waiting is boring, then watching someone passively wait for a call from a casting agent is even more boring.
It was during Mia’s wait for that call from the casting agent that I realized what La La Land had lacked all along: Zombies.
The first half of La La Land, as beautifully filmed as it is, radiates a sad truth about American music and film. It’s dead. Sebastian Wilder and Mia Dolan are a very nice young man and woman with little or nothing to say pursuing artistic dreams that were over before either of them was even born. They are essentially zombies, dead souls going through the motions of acting and playing the piano for ninety year olds. La La Land’s wonderfully shot landscape, full of images from classic American cinema and landmarks of old Hollywood might as well be a morgue. Nobody cares about Casablanca anymore. Nobody cares about James Dean. Charlie Parker was great for his time, but the goal of opening up a jazz club called “Chicken on a Stick” – Charlie Park was called “Bird” because he loved chicken – is more like cultural grave robbing than artistic innovation. The musical and dance numbers are competently done – Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling can both sing and dance – but where Astaire and Rogers not only seemed to float through the air, they also had an authority and an authenticity to their art. They were dancing for a reason. The classic musicals of the 1930s had a purpose. For the price of a movie ticket you could escape the Great Depression.
Stone’s and Gosling’s performances, by contrast, are not only heavy and workmanlike, you can never quite forget that they’re “acting.” It constantly reminds you that their characters are both unsuccessful performers, and more importantly, as of yet unfulfilled careerists. In the movie Swing Time, Fred Astaire hopped a freight train to New York with less than fifty cents in his pocket, but you still got the sense that even if he never made the big time it wouldn’t bother him. All he wanted to do was dance. With Stone and Gosling, the goal seems more important than getting there, success more important that having fun. They don’t really enjoy those musical numbers for themselves, but only as a means to that mansion in West LA and that spot on the Hollywood A List. How much more enjoyable Stone and Gosling would have been, therefore, if they had sung and danced as zombies, if Gosling had twirled Stone around the dance floor only to rip her nose off her face before losing an arm trying to pick her up, if Damien Chazelle made it explicit that if you pursue a dead art, your soul will eventually die, that if you go through dance moves that no longer matter you basically end up dancing like corpse. Ah, if only the moral dilemma in La La Land had been “should I behead my true love” rather than “should I break up with my true love so I can make it in the film business.” Just a few thousand dollars of zombie makeup could have turned a very good film into a great one.
Damien Chazelle should have given us zombies, but I can certainly understand why he didn’t. He was making a “serious” film that will eventually be re-released by Criterion, and zombie movies never win “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards. So instead of zombies, he gives us an alternative timeline, constructs two parallel narratives that represent “what was” and “what might have been.”
We never find out for certain whether or not Mia gets the part in the film set in Paris, but we do know that she becomes a successful actress. “Winter Five Years in the Future,” the title card tells us as we see an elegant looking woman, filmed from behind, walk into the coffee shop that used to employ Mia. After the manager offers her her latte for free, and she insists on paying anyway, we realize that the elegant looking woman is in fact Mia Dolan, that she’s finally made it in Hollywood. We also assume that she and Sebastian, who like Mia is shown to have found success are both happily married. He’s found a way to open up his jazz club after all. OK, we think, it’s a rather forced happy ending, but at least it’s a happy ending. But then we notice something strange. What the fuck!! Mia is married to another guy, and not someone whose character had been previously established earlier in the film, but literally just “some guy.” We never even find out his name. Husbands, like famous actress shot from behind in coffee shops, are disposable and interchangeable. Even though Sebastian and Mia very credibly swore to each other that they’d always love each other, their marriage and their finding success, were mutually exclusive. So Mia gave up Sebastian for her acting career and Sebastian gave up Mia for his jazz club. La La Land, we conclude, is a romantic movie with a very unromantic ending.
But Damien Chazelle has a surprise up his sleeve. La La Land doesn’t have one ending. Similar to the way Tom Tykwer uses multiple timelines Run Lola Run, it has two. The final twenty minutes of La la Land, I have to admit, are terrific, and will probably get Chazelle a Best Picture Oscar. Mia and “that guy she’s married to” – did I mention he doesn’t have a name, that he’s just “some guy?” – get stuck in a traffic jam on a freeway. So they take the most convenient exit and duck into a nightclub for dinner. You can almost feel Mia’s heart leap when she notices that the club is called “Seb’s” for “Sebastian” and that it is indeed her ex lover playing the piano. She imagines the marriage with Sebastian that never happened. Let’s call it “A Wonderful Life that Never Happened.” It’s not only beautiful and heart rending, it also makes you realize what Mia and Sebastian had been lacking all along. If you can give up your true love for your career, even it’s a career in music or film, then you’re not an artist. You’re a yuppie. You’re a hard headed business man, or woman, who should be selling real estate or stock options, not starring in movies or playing the piano. That Damien Chazelle couldn’t dramatize how Mia and Sebastian went from miserable failures to the A List Hollywood elite, that he simply jumps five years into the future, and presents their triumph as a fait accompli probably says even more than he intended to say. In 2016, in the dying capitalist empire of America, art is all form, no substance. You can make nice looking films or music that people can dance too, but it has little or no relevance to how people actually live, and if it does, you probably won’t be able to sell it.
In other words, we live in a dead culture. That’s why La La Land, as a good a film as it is, would have been so much better had it been about zombies. Damien Chazelle should have used zombies.