Warning: this piece contains spoilers.
I love musicals. Like, love them love them. So you can imagine my trepidation about La La Land, the recently released musical from director Damien Chazelle that's a frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar. Hollywood tries to bring the musical back roughly every two years, and it almost never works. Could La La Land be the one to break the streak?
First, let me say that there is a great deal to love in La La Land. It is never less than entertaining, and it frequently reaches moments of dizzying rapture that come closer to matching the heights of the American musical than anything I can remember in ages. Stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone can't sing particularly well (he sounds like Chet Baker trying to find a note, she's a little better) and they can't dance particularly well either, but it doesn't much matter. The movie captures us anyway. What it does—at first tentatively, then with increasing self-confidence—that precious few modern-day musicals do is tap into the glorious artifice that most golden age musicals were built on.
The very foundation of musicals—the idea that the world can burst into song at a moment's notice, that dancing can have the expressive power of speech, that the boundaries of time and space can be collapsed on command—turns them into magical realist fantasies without even trying. Old musicals are able to conjure all of this with an unabashed, uncompromised sincerity, but you can almost always feel the strain in modern ones. Even the really good ones, like Chicago, have an element of pastiche, of mugging. La La Land, remarkably, almost never does. When Stone and Gosling are suddenly, joyously lifted off the ground in a planetarium, or, in a stunning, divine sequence at the end of the film, evoke about a million different musical classics, it's just blissful. The movie is wonderfully unashamed of itself. You swoon.
But all is not well in La La Land. It's so good at emulating old musicals that it stumbles into one of the more troublesome corners of the genre: race.
It's no secret, or surprise, that old Hollywood musicals always had problems with race. All old movies (and, for that matter, a hell of a lot of new ones) have had problems with race. Racism is a pretty big thing in America! But what's interesting about La La Land is how neatly it fits into a very specific set of patterns that pop up all throughout old Hollywood musicals when it comes to race. Broadly speaking, you can put them into three categories: ones that pretend race doesn't exist, ones that awkwardly shoehorn race in, and ones that are blatantly racist.
There are plenty of examples of the last one. The first blockbuster film of any kind with sound, after all, was The Jazz Singer—a musical whose triumphant climax features Al Jolson in blackface. Everyone from Fred Astaire to Judy Garland to Bing Crosby has had a turn in blackface numbers.
When musicals weren't openly mocking people of color, they were fitting them in in the least obtrusive way possible. The most famous example of this is Lena Horne, one of the most iconic black jazz singers of the 20th century. She appeared in a string of musicals for MGM in the 1940s, but only in discrete solo scenes that could be easily snipped out of the films when they played in the South. (Horne would only get juicier parts in all-black musicals like Cabin in the Sky or Stormy Weather. Similarly, the Nicholas Brothers—a black dance duo who performed some of the most dazzling numbers in film history—were a perennial feature in 1940s musicals—but never as actual characters. They'd show up, do their thing, and make their exit, leaving the white people to carry the actual plot forward.
Then there are musicals that just pretend people of color aren't a thing. This comes off as especially weird now given that jazz music sits at the center of most Hollywood musicals. Watch a musical and there's a good chance that you'll get some white people using black idioms to hail jazz—with no black people around. (Again, remember The Jazz Singer.) You'll even, in some extreme circumstances, get numbers like "I Left My Hat In Haiti," from 1951's Royal Wedding, where Fred Astaire ventures down to one of the most historically important black countries in the world and encounters…a bunch of white people. (We won't even get into movies like West Side Story, which just cast white people as Puerto Ricans.)
There are exceptions to these patterns—the complicated career of Brazilian screen legend Carmen Miranda, for instance, or some of the adaptations of more liberal stage shows—but not many.
La La Land never reaches these lows, but its racial politics are bizarre in ways that unnervingly echo some of its predecessors. It's 2016, so of course the main characters—Sebastian, the jazz musician played by Gosling, and Mia, the actress played by Stone—exist in a more diverse milieu than their forerunners. Sebastian's sister marries a black man, for instance, and one of Mia's roommates is a person of color. Neither of these ancillary characters have more than a few lines, but it's something, I suppose.
Yet the movie's relationship to race is nevertheless shot through with a tension that Chazelle and his stars appear completely oblivious to. It manifests itself most conspicuously in the way it handles Gosling's character. Sebastian is presented as a deeply passionate classicist struggling to save a dying genre. In one scene, he takes Mia to an empty jazz club where, in front of an all-black band, he explains the power of the music to her in mystical and rather torturously written terms. Beyond the male condescension inherent in the scene, the use of a white man as a portal into what is, unambiguously, a black art form lands with a uncomfortable thud. The actual black people playing the music in the scene are not asked to share their thoughts.
I was reminded strongly of a scene in the 1956 film High Society, where Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong hold forth on roughly the same topic. Ironically, the interplay between the two is actually on a much more equal footing than the nonexistent contact Sebastian has with the players in La La Land. By 1956, Armstrong had long been a crossover icon of popular culture, so you couldn't just park him in the corner—but even so, Crosby is the key messenger, a white man transmitting jazz to a presumably white audience, while flanked by a black band.
That scene in La La Land is nothing, though, compared to the way the movie handles its most important black character, a bandleader named Keith, played by John Legend. If La La Land has a villain, it's Keith. He and Sebastian have some sort of fraught history, but he still convinces Sebastian to join his new band—a plot point on which the whole rest of the movie hinges. When Sebastian turns up to rehearsal and discovers that Keith wants to play jazz in a style tinged with soul and hip hop influences, he freezes, clearly shocked. Keith sternly tells him that jazz has to face the future, and he grimly accepts. Later, Mia attends a performance of the band and is openly horrified by the backup dancers and razzle-dazzle she sees. What happened to the purity of Sebastian's music?
Again, the film appears unaware of what it's implying—that it will take a white man to rescue a sacred black art form from a black man intent on degrading it. The rest of the plot will go unmentioned here, but suffice it to say that Keith is not redeemed by the end of La La Land.
Chazelle's last film, Whiplash, was also about white people engaged in an obsessive relationship with jazz, so he clearly has a theme. La La Land comes very close to a masterpiece, which is why it's such a shame that, just like so many Hollywood musicals before it, it struggles so mightily to include people of color in a way that is both just and dramatically sound.