In the late days of January, with the alternative facts of the newly inaugurated Trump administration dominating my feeds, I turned to the cinema to escape. Instead of revisiting my 1980s childhood preparation for nuclear war, I went to sit in a cool dark room and watch La La Land. (It was also my birthday and a few hours of holiday reality seemed to be in order.) Holding choc-tops that cost as much as the cheap tickets, I took my seat in the fourth row, not expecting much beyond a bit of nostalgic song and dance.
But two hours later, as I emerged into a sunny busy street (that was still there despite whatever might have happened in the United States during this time), the best I could summon was a shrug of my shoulders. Sure I’d been distracted from the garbage fire of distant politics, but this film niggled, and it wasn’t because of the failed romance of two characters, Mia and Sebastian. It was because, for all the talk of dreams and magic, its message was ultimately a frustratingly conservative one of individual success. But here I am getting ahead of myself.
‘It feels really nostalgic to me,’ says aspiring actress Mia after reading her work in progress, a one-woman show. ‘Is it too nostalgic?’ she asks her boyfriend, jazz pianist Sebastian. ‘Will people like it?’ These might well be the two questions that linger for audiences after seeing La La Land. The film takes up the story of Mia and Sebastian, two individuals trying to make a go of their dreams in LA, in the face of repeated rejections.
If Mia’s worries about audiences liking her show are a projection of La La Land’s writer and director Damien Chazelle’s own concerns for his film, he needn’t have worried. With numerous prestigious nominations and awards, high box-office earnings and critical praise, it’s clear that enough of the people who matter like the film. The Observer’s Mark Kermode, for instance, who gave it five stars, described it as having a ‘timeless charm and brave sense of adventure’. Why then did I feel that La La Land had cheated me a little? Was it simply that it didn’t live up to the marketing narrative? Did it wallow too much in an idealised past? It’s worth looking more closely at what this film shows us about careers and success in an era of agile, gig-based workers, and the ways in which nostalgia can both anchor and conceal.
La La Land is a small story of two people, Mia and Sebastian, with career ambitions and their relatively brief relationship along the way. It’s one part bittersweet romance, one part overcoming-the-odds career story, one part old-fashioned musical. It’s a beautiful film, all drenched in primary reds, yellows, blues, with some pretty emerald green thrown in for good measure. Even as Sebastian’s and Mia’s career ambitions falter and shift over the course of their relationship, the stylish chiffon dresses, French pleats and waist-coated suits stay true, conjuring up the best, most visually attractive bits of an imagined past salvaged from the 1920s to the early 1960s. Conspicuously absent are traces of the less structured, rebellious 1960s and 1970s fashions.
Mia’s and Sebastian’s goal of having successful creative careers is not particularly unusual, radical or threatening to their world as it is. They do not want to transform this world but to secure the place in it they have been led to believe (through the praise of teachers, parents and awards) naturally exists for them if they work hard enough. They have not yet buckled to the narrow horizons of their real status as precarious workers. Their ambitions remain the first-world expectations of what philosopher Slavoj Žižek calls the ‘petit-bourgeois ambitious individual’. There is little room for collaboration in this project. ‘It’s a one-woman show,’ Mia tells her friends when they ask for parts in her play, ‘so I can’t.’ This doesn’t inspire sympathy with their plight. Indeed, Žižek’s response to Mia and Sebastian singing ‘City of stars, are you shining just for me?’ is not one of sympathy for these two, but one of solidarity for all those like them: ‘to hum back the most stupid orthodox Marxist reply imaginable: “No, I am not shining just for the petit-bourgeois ambitious individual that you are, I am also shining for the thousands of exploited precarious workers in Hollywood whom you can’t see …”’
For all the lightness of its multicolour, old-school styling, song and dance, La La Land does take seriously its protagonists’ problem of how to pursue creative careers. Unlike the light banter with a protective hardened shell of Gene Kelly and his pianist friend in An American in Paris, La La Land shows the damage of Mia’s and Sebastian’s continued rejection by a world that doesn’t want them. At auditions, casting agents pay lip service to professional courtesy, telling Mia, ‘in your own time’. They then proceed to take phone calls, talk about lunch, and look at headshots for other actors. Outside the room, Mia sees all the other girls just like her lining the corridor, waiting for their turn to impress. Sebastian also knows that he is dispensable. When he is fired from his gig for playing a jazz tune rather than Christmas carols, his boss taunts him about how easy he will be to replace. Each humiliation is another wound to their selfhood as Mia and Sebastian adjust to not being at all special, but replaceable and dispensable.
Even family is no refuge from criticism. ‘I’m a phoenix rising from the ashes,’ Sebastian declares, in full of bravado mode to his sister. But this is far from certain. ‘No Mum, I’m not getting paid. I’m paying to do it,’ Mia tells her mother on the phone, admitting that her desperate one-woman show isn’t a sign of success. ‘No,’ we hear her add in reply to what I imagine is her mother’s eye-rolling as she asks about Sebastian, ‘he doesn’t have a steady gig.’ And it’s not just mothers who worry in La La Land. ‘I had a very serious plan for my future,’ Sebastian tells his older sister when she exhorts him to live in the real world of paying bills and insurance. ‘It’s not my fault I got shanghaied,’ he replies. While the exact nature of how he was ripped off is left unexplained, his statement could well stand in for the more widely experienced disappointment of those who work hard to develop skills only to find no-one wants them.
How long, the film asks, is enough to give to the pursuit of personal ambitions before packing it in and going home? At what point does Mia’s quip that she ‘should’ve been a lawyer’ become an admission of failure? When does the pianist playing Christmas carols for tips acknowledge he might not be the saviour of jazz? These are not only questions about the market for what we have to offer, but also intensely personal ones about identity and the source of ambition. ‘What about the possibility that, early in life, when one did not have all the awareness that was needed,’ as Frank Moorhouse asks in his final ‘Edith’ novel, Cold Light:
… we struck a devilish contract—that is, a private contract with oneself, with life—to achieve some great goal, which was gradually revealed to be unachievable? We desperately clung to that tantalising goal, ever promised, beckoning, slowly turning into a torment, until we finally accepted that we had ‘failed’ ourselves, that we could not reach it, and we were left, despite having applied ourselves with diligence and labour to the achieving of the goal, to living a disappointed, soured and disgruntled life.
La La Land takes us well into this complicated terrain, showing how Mia’s and Sebastian’s doubts and struggles intermingle with who they are and the romantic relationship they try to create.
Immediately after the screening, two older women are talking over the hand dryers in the cinema toilets, complaining loudly about ‘not getting all the fuss’ over the film. This wasn’t the modern-day Ginger and Fred story they’d been led to expect. The girl with the pink hair and silver glitter makeup in the comic shop is similarly disappointed. ‘If it says it’s going to be a musical,’ she tells me, ‘then give me a musical, not some depressing romance. Give me fucking “Dancing in the Rain’, Fred Astaire!’ Clearly some of this disappointment is the mismatch between the film and what Daily Review critic Luke Buckmaster called its ‘lovey-dovey’ marketing.
False marketing expectations aside, to my mind at least, La La Land’s depiction of a short-lived love has an emotional honesty that is genuine and interesting. ‘It’s pretty strange that we keep running into each other,’ says Mia after her third chance encounter with Sebastian. ‘Maybe it means something?’ she asks, a joke at the ready. ‘No, I don’t think so.’ After this meeting, they begin a low-key relationship, gradually transforming chance into choice, learning about each other’s interests, supporting and sustaining each other’s ambitions. This is not the intense, doomed romantic love of Romeo and Juliet or Marianne and Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, but it seems genuine. And while Mia and Sebastian are alike in many ways—white, educated and socioculturally middle-class Americans—their differences of personality and perspective subtly alter their career aspirations and approaches.
In the early ‘ups’ of their relationship, Mia and Sebastian moderate their pursuit of individual ambitions and come to see the world from what philosopher Alain Badiou calls an experience of difference. ‘Love is an antidote’ to self-interest, argues Badiou, ‘… a unique trust placed in chance. It … leads to the idea that you can experience the world from the perspective of difference.’ So for Mia, who has been waiting somewhat passively to get questionable bit parts, she takes up Sebastian’s suggestion to stop waiting for permission to act: ‘So you could just write your own roles.’ For Sebastian’s part, although he claims not to care what the world thinks, he has to confront his material failure in overhearing Mia admit his lack of a job on the phone to her mother. The stain on the ceiling of his rented flat taunts him further. At this point, he is open to Mia’s suggestion that he follow up a job as a gigging musician. While he once dismissed LA as a place where ‘they worship everything and they value nothing’, he compromises and takes the touring job playing music he doesn’t love but that pays the bills.
The later ‘downs’ of their relationship result from their inability to deal with Sebastian’s distance and Mia’s disappointment at his artistic compromise touring with the now popular band. He is no longer the person either of them thought he was, and recognition of this is painful for them both to face. (‘One is always surprised,’ writes sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in Pascalian Meditations, ‘to see how people’s wills adjust to their possibilities, their desires to the capacity to satisfy them …’) In a flurry of drama and failures of communication, each retreats from the shared existential commitment they have made to be together. ‘Real love’, as Badiou defines it, ‘is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.’ Despite caring for each other, Sebastian and Mia do not have the tenacity to change and endure together.
The film could easily and quite reasonably ended at this point, with the melancholy refrain from ‘City of Stars’ playing, their love and career aspirations damaged and compromised. Disappointingly, it doesn’t. We aren’t allowed to see what would happen to Mia if she hit rock-bottom, her relationship failed, her one-woman show a failure, in debt to the theatre. We don’t see her make hard decisions for the sake of her much wanted career, such as the obvious one of selling her Prius to pay her debt. Instead we see her return to her parents’ comfortable middle American home, where she still has a bedroom displaying her teenage awards for acting, the ordinary signs of a long-held commitment to her career.
But unlike Sebastian’s creative and material failures, Mia’s is short-lived. She is rescued by opportunity. Sebastian, announcing himself to the neighbourhood with his car horn, comes to tell her that a casting agent has seen her show, recognised her talent, and wants her to audition for a big role. When she gets it, of course, the film is telling us to believe her extraordinary luck is because she stuck authentically to her dream, despite all the evidence it has mounted to the contrary. Chance is still out there for the dreamers and strugglers. The recognition she receives constitutes an endorsement of the world as it is.
This message is the kind of insubstantial tale of naive encouragement we might expect from a children’s TV show, but La La Land is for adults. And while luck may play an indeterminate role in success, life chances and opportunity are unevenly distributed and restricted by where you’re born, how much money your family has, and so on. Yet in La La Land this is invisible. The interesting questions La La Land initially raises—about career, relationships and identity in a time that offers few assurances of continuity, commitment and consolidation—are ultimately reduced to an old-fashioned recipe for success: hard work, self-belief and luck. The world is fine, just keep struggling, working, waiting for the gods to smile on you.
Yet it can be hard to notice these problems with La La Land. Nostalgia is the great diversionary tactic deployed, stopping us from looking too closely at the inherently conservative career story that the film promotes. This is because the present in La La Land is infused with a bittersweet longing for lost moments. Even the film’s sunniest moments are tinged with a pre-emptive nostalgia, such as the opening song about another day of sun. Here, one of the drivers stuck in a traffic jam sings about her imagined future where the boy she left to pursue her LA dream would one day see her on the screen and say ‘I used to know her.’ This pre-empts the film’s conclusion, where Mia and her husband go to a jazz club.
There she and Sebastian see each other across the crowded room for the first time in years. Mia is now married, has a child, and her face features on large billboards promoting her latest movie. Sebastian has achieved his more modest goal of owning a jazz club of his own. But as he sits at the piano playing the film’s Proust-like refrain, ‘City of Stars’, it summons up the possible future they lost by not staying together. In this alternative reality of what could have been they got to have it all without sacrificing anything: career, love, a child, and material ease. It is a bizarre fantasy, but under the film’s longing for lost time it makes some sense. And the piano notes and feeling remained in my head long after I felt played by the scene.
But nostalgic imaginings can also be a smokescreen, offering us nothing new, colouring the present with a sense of loss, allowing us to wallow in the illusion that the past must have been better than this. Rather than engaging with the important issues of our personal lives and era, and what can be done about them, it’s easier to look to a return to a lost age of greatness. It’s easier to indulge in La La Land’s ‘sad story’ than to critique its old-fashioned formula for how to be a successful person. As in national and international politics, some would prefer magical thinking that fosters hope than to face the disillusionment of looking at the fine print. As in La La Land, stopping to ask ‘Is it too nostalgic?’ is unlikely to find a receptive audience. We’re likely to get something much like Sebastian’s reply, ‘Fuck ’em.’