Irony is the not-so-new normal. Somewhere back in the swirling dry-ice mists of history, round about the time of the one-and-only Clinton Administration, this venerable figure-of-speech stretched its wings and its brand and became a full-fledged lifestyle choice providing post-moderns with essential protection for life, liberty, and pursuit of nostalgia.
Aided by irony, you could wear suede shoes and wide-wale bell-bottoms, mix old-fashioned cocktails from overpriced mason jars, enjoying it all while meaning none of it. The performance was the key: cloaked in paradox, these linoleum countertop-revolutionaries were safe—they’d say “empowered”—to mock their own poses.
There was an unacknowledged anti-political dimension to this: how to make sense of a poor boy from Hope, Arkansas claiming to be a young and groovy populist but then going on to make war on black America, firing off missiles in the Middle East, expanding NATO in search of a new Cold War, and jumping into bed and into closets with corporations and interns? The answer to all this was ironic: buy a camo flak jacket or make kindred gestures more defeatist than defiant.
Next thing you know it’s 2017. Donald Trump is about to be president and has taken irony to a whole new realm called by some “post-truth.” American leaders have long been contemptuous of honesty, especially about themselves and their country, but Trump enjoys flaunting his scorn for reality: he’s lived so long in his own irony bubble that he no longer knows or cares what the difference between disdain and belief might be. That’s what makes him the hippest man in America.
Like the fabricated images we see riffling in the breeze on a vintage Hollywood back lot that is a favorite location of the film, this is the backdrop for La La Land, the movie musical that took home a magnificent seven Golden Globes last weekend and is poised to rake in still more pseudo-honors at the upcoming Academy Awards.
This cinemascope entertainment makes for a fun two-hours, but it must be enjoyed with a big tub of buttered irony if the kernels and condiments of its nostalgia are to go down the gullet without provoking a spluttered cough or requiring a life-saving Heimlich maneuver from the usherette.
The genre of La La Land is inherently backward-looking, the film is soaked with references to the movie industry’s past and the musical’s marquee moments. There are the obligatory riffs on Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, Top Hat and probably dozens of other bits of more recent, but no less nostalgic cast. These are fetchingly embroidered into the love story of the main characters, the doctrinaire old-school jazz-pianist, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and the aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone): even their romance is overtaken by retrospect as the movie gives in to the seductions of its own reverie.
Lit by the afterglow of the Golden Age past and the glimmer of a what-might-be future, La La Land celebrates its own self-regard by gently mocking the here-and-now of its Los Angeles. When in this lightly ironic mode the film is at its best.
At an overlook in Hollywood Hills where the couple breaks into its first duet and soft-shoe number, the would-be lovers comment disdainfully on the sprawling city of lights below. The movie loops back on itself for a later return to the location, during the day rather than in romantic twilight: the pair scoffs at the city once again, as if to say “Who would live—and love—in such a place?” Nostalgia numbs the senses, and is therefore the drug that allows the pursuit of celebrity. Accordingly, the movie’s centerpiece song, “City of Stars” is a wistfully circling minor key melody above a repetitive piano figure that is jaunty and sentimental: it doesn’t think, it dreams.
The film’s most impressive cinematic feat comes right at the opening with “Another Day in the Sun.” Motorists stuck in a teeth-grinding LA traffic jam escape their cars for a high-energy production number that weaves between vehicles and courses up and down the onramp — all in a single take with the camera itself joining the ecstatic choreography. Making fun of the perfect Californian weather and the relentless freeway stasis that defines the city derided by Mia and Sebastian from the Hollywood Hills, this tableau gives new meaning to the phrase show-stopper. Gridlock spawns blastoff before the film has even properly begun. This wholesome escapist fantasy also laughs at the chases and crashes in which Hollywood automobiles usually star: the only time there is traffic in La La Land is when it helps the story.
These petty ironies orbit around a much weightier one. The appealing chemistry between the leads is at its best when Stone and Gosling are verbally sparring, on a date at a classic movie, flirting, or arguing — not when they are dancing or singing. That the movie more-or-less overcomes this dilemma is a tribute to the generally snappy script and the verve of the direction.
While one can admire the effort and native talent of both stars in their homages to Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly and many others, they are not equipped for their roles: the crescendo never comes; no one is swept off her feet; gestures are made but not followed through on. Stone is a real star even when not fully in her element, but when doing their songs and dances she and Gosling seem more to be hitting their marks in a meta-musical. In this sense the musical’s main song rightly judges the movie around it: the leads are stars, not singers and dancers.
There are still more massive ironies, none more debilitating than the fact that it’s a strident — not stride — white pianist who anoints himself the apostle of jazz who will save it from the menace of pop culture. This Sebastian loves bebop not Bach. He worships Miles, Coltrane and other icons of what he calls “pure jazz.” Yet Sebastian’s own waltz — the one that first draws Mia to him in a restaurant where he is shackled in seasonal servitude to the Christmas Carols and that he plays again at the crux of the film — is sickly saccharine stuff, the work of the musical’s composer, Justin Hurwitz.
As supposed savior of what some have called America’s Classical Music, Sebastian is stuck in a movie musical that, in contrast to so many Broadway shows, will never birth a jazz standard. Real jazz musicians are occasionally wheeled into frame like stage sets in order to add a whiff of authenticity, but no attempt is made to marry the art form with the real musical content of the movie. The film seems to confirm what its lead character fears: Americans don’t like jazz.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle is to be applauded for his virtuosically impressive direction and the cleverness of his script, but his attitude towards jazz appears as white as Fred Astaire’s waistcoat — perfect for Hollywood. In Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) it was the malign and musically tiresome Buddy Rich who was the idol of the young, beset drummer. In La La Land Gosling’s Sebastian professes to love Monk, and tries to figure out one of his piano licks by constantly rewinding the cassette player in his 1970s convertible while stuck in that opening traffic jam. But what Sebastian sings and plays himself is pure schlock.
The filmmakers are clearly aware that they are on dangerous ground when it comes to race, especially in Los Angeles. When Seb first breaks into “City of Stars” he is shuffling down Santa Monica pier trying some Astaire tricks with a fedora that apparently fell like manna from the heaven. On his stroll he encounters a black couple and dances cheek to cheek with the woman for a few bars, before the man takes muted umbrage.
The role of Sebastian’s music-school comrade and former bandmate Keith is taken by that anodyne avenger, John Legend. He is made to espouse a supposedly progressive view of jazz that claims it must either evolve or die. Soon enough the unbending musical moralist, Sebastian is buying dark suits and touring with Keith’s band ironically called the Messengers — the “Jazz” of Art Blakey’s seminal ensembles having been lopped off. Still more ironical is the fact that Legend’s production number Start a Fire (co-written by Legend and Hurwitz) makes for the film’s best, most energetic music — all nostalgic funk and fusion, big haired back-up singers and Solid Gold-style dancers.
Soon after this ironic high, Sebastian plays the piano at Keith’s wedding to a white woman, the interracial marriage is a pretty transparent ploy to soften the racial dissonance at the heart of the film. At the backyard ceremony, Sebastian doesn’t seize the opportunity to break into Monk’s Ruby, My Dear but claws at his signature waltz, as sickly sweet as bad wedding cake. Irony makes even this palatable.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com.)