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La La Land and Nostalgia’s End

One of the enduring criticisms of La La Land is the extent to which it indulges in nostalgia.

This is true of both the film and its characters. The opening scene proudly declares that the movie has been filmed in “Cinemascope”, with the landscape heavily saturated with bright colours that evoke classic Hollywood musicals even before a final showstopping number that evokes everything from An American in Paris to 7th Heaven. In this day and age, producing any big budget musical would feel like an act of nostalgia, but La La Land is a love letter to a genre that has fallen even further to the wayside than the western.

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Even the characters inhabiting the film’s world are defined by nostalgia. This is most obvious with Sebastian, a jazz nerd who desperately wants to construct a loving shrine to the artform as he loves it. “It’s dying,” he urges Mia. “It’s withering on the vine.” Sebastian laments the conversion of a cultural landmark into a “samba and tapas” restaurant. However, Mia is implied to be just as nostalgic. Her room is decorated with classic Hollywood memorabilia. When she finishes a rendition of her one-woman show, she asks Sebastian, “Is it too nostalgic?”

This sense of nostalgia has become an obvious line of attack against La La Land, particularly once it emerged as a Best Picture frontrunner. This is the way that things work; the same accusations were leveled at films like The Artist and Argo, to pick two recent examples. However, these criticisms miss one of the more compelling and nuanced aspects of La La Land‘s nostalgia. The film clearly pines for a lost past, wistfully remembering a world that no longer exists. However, it also accepts that loss. Unlike most exercises in nostalgia, La La Land understands that things can have value because they end.

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Note: This post contains spoilers for La La Land, including a discussion of the film’s ending. Go see it. Then come back.

Pop culture has always been nostalgic. It is disingenuous to claim otherwise. Sequels and remakes, reboots and reimaginings; these have always been part of the Hollywood game. In fact, they are fairly common across the artistic spectrum; musicians will frequently cover songs written by others or put their own take on old standards, to pick one example. As easy as it is to lament Hollywood’s current output as indulgent and fixated on the past, the truth is that the human condition has always drawn us to look backwards.

At the same time, the current generation seems particularly fixated on the past. The twenty-first century has witnessed a wide variety of belated sequels and long-delayed reimaginings to films and television shows released in the nineties; the Rock is starring in Baywatch, Michael Bay is producing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Jeff Goldblum is returning for Independence Day: Resurgence, B.D. Wong reprises his role for Jurassic World. Even Chris Carter is reviving The X-Files and David Lynch is resurrecting Twin Peaks.

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These are all peaens to childhood nostalgia, squarely aimed at concepts and premises that appealed to modern adults when they were children. Even the modern superhero boom is arguably an extension of that theory, with cinematic live-action adaptations of characters that most audience members know better from nineties cartoon shows than from four-colour comics. There is a sense, looking at the cultural landscape as it currently exists, that modern audiences have allowed their childhoods to continue in one form or another through the entertainment they consume.

One of the curious side effects of all of this is that stories no longer really end. Characters are never afforded endings, because they will always be brought back. There can be no resolution. When Christ Carter brought The X-Files back for a six-episode event series, he ended My Struggle II on a cliffhanger while promising that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson would likely be playing the roles until they were in wheelchairs. None of the characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe will ever have a satisfying ending, because there are still sequels to be made.

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Storytelling in film and television works differently today than it did even ten or fifteen years ago. Most of the dominant stories in popular culture never end. They do not resolve. After all, Hannibal might have been cancelled by NBC, but there is every possibility that that cast and crew might reunite to continue the story after a five or ten year gap. Those stories that do have definite endings, most notably Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the Batman mythos in The Dark Knight Rises, are all the more notable for that fact.

As a result, audiences do not really treat stories as ending. And they do not treat nostalgia as the celebration of something long past. Instead, nostalgia is presented as some sort of cultural necromance that revives something that might otherwise be dead, or simply stirs an existing concept from a deep slumber. Nothing every truly goes away, instead dancing through popular culture like ghosts haunting an old house. There is no opportunity to miss anything, because it is always waiting to be resuscitated and indulged. There is no closure, for the stories are all open-ended.

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This is what makes the nostalgia of La La Land so striking, and in a way that is frequently missed by its detractors who argue that the film peddles in an empty nostalgia. There is undoubtedly a nostalgia to La La Land, but it is nuanced. Beneath the bright exteriors, the cheerful songs, and the wide-eyed wonder, there is a deeper understanding that some things are never coming back. La La Land seems to accept this fact, and embraces it with a complex range of emotions. The loss of the past is sad, but the past is also more powerful for being lost. There is a dignity in it.

This is most obvious in Sebastian’s relationship with jazz, which has become another bone of contention for critics of the film. Many observers have accused La La Land of indulging in a “white saviour” narrative, where Sebastian is a white man who must preserve the cultural integrity of jazz from the meddling of pop musician Keith and his band the Messengers. This criticism scans on surface details, but it is also extremely shallow. After all, watching La La Land, it is hard to get a sense that Sebastian has saved anything.

Ryan Gosling and John Legend in La La Land (2016) Titles: La La Land People: Ryan Gosling, John Legend Photo by Dale Robinette

Sebastian does eventually open his own club. He turns it into a shrine to jazz. The antique stool featured earlier in the film is turned into an artifact that sits on a counter, surrounded by photos documenting a long history of the art form. It certainly looks like Sebastian has what he wants. He has a little corner of the world where he can play the music that he wants to play, without having to compromise with Keith or make concessions to the real world. However, there is a melancholy underscoring this conclusion.

Sebastian claims to love jazz, but what is he doing to save it? How does this small little club in the basement keep jazz alive? What steps is Sebastian taking to prevent jazz from withering on the vine? La La Land subtly suggests that Keith has not saved jazz, but merely trapped it in amber. He has carved out this space where jazz can be protected and endured, but he has done little to help it grow and spread. He was enthusiastic about sharing his love of jazz with Mia, but how is he sharing it with anyone else? After all, the patrons of the club (excluding Mia) seem pretty old.

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This attitude is reflected in the relationship between Mia and Sebastian. The two share an intense and passionate romance that enriches both of their lives, empowering each to live their dreams. However, the relationship is not to be. Both characters wind up going their own way, with Mia becoming an actor and Sebastian owning his club. However, their final shared scene suggests that the couple still look back with affection and understanding upon their time together. However, that does not mean that their time together can be resurrected, or the flame rekindled. It is in the past.

La La Land accepts that the past might be lost to us, barring small indulgences like Sebastian’s jazz club or the shared fantasy towards the end of the film. Important and life-altering things like love and jazz might ultimately be transient, and people cannot count on them being around forever. It is important to acknowledge and celebrate them, but it is also important to understand that they do end. Times change. Attitudes shift. Love dies. And that does not devalue any of the wonder or joy of what happened. Instead, it enriches it.

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La La Land suggests that transient things like jazz or love have value because they end. The relationship between Mia and Sebastian would not hold the same value to either of them without that ending. Had either of the pair made the compromises or sacrifices that were necessary to stay together, then the nature of their love would have changed and it would not have been the same enriching experience. The same is true of Sebastian’s uncompromising love of jazz; his unwillingness to compromise may doom that form of jazz, but it does not devalue his love for it.

(Indeed, it should be noted that transience was also suggested by Damien Chazelle’s work on Whiplash, which suggested that artistic brilliance was not a constant state but something that had value because it could arrive and depart at any given moment. The entire narrative of Whiplash builds to one (relatively modest) performance that represents the pinnacle of Andrew’s artistic abilities. The moment itself is the point of the film, earning that small instance of transcendence. Whiplash asked if a moment of greatness was more important than a lifetime of adequacy.)

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La La Land is undoubtedly a nostalgic film, but in a more thoughtful way than most critics would concede. It exists very much at odds with modern nostalgia and the way the modern pop culture keeps the past alive. La La Land has the composure to understand that all truly worthwhile things must end, but also the maturity to recognise that this does not diminish them and may even enrich them.

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4 Responses

  1. Very intereting ideas Darren, and they make me think of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, another film that was thoughtfully nostalgic.

    I just saw ‘La La Land’ and loved it. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling really are great!

  2. Well written and thoughtful analysis. I felt the same way about Sebastian’s jazz club. His approach would be like Kurt Cobain setting out to save rock and roll by playing a bunch of Elvis-inspired rockabilly.
    And I thought that Keith was right, the jazz musicians he loved were revolutionaries. Sebastian is failing to keep with that spirit. Just because he gained an appreciation for an art form nearly 100 years after its prime doesn’t place him on their level.

    Midnight in Paris is another candid take on nostalgia. I loved the progressive realization in that film that nostalgia is not what they thought it was. People need to be reminded that nostalgia is not fondly reminiscing about our past, but it is to be used sparingly as a gauge by which we can evaluate our present. It is easier to slip into the former. It is easier to wish things were “the way they used to be,” implying that was better, than to work for a better present and to create more opportunity in the future, however different it may be.

    • In some ways, I do think that La La Land really fits with the modern mood and landscape, if only because it seems like a significant proportion of citizens of major powers have effectively transformed into Sebastian, desperate to set things back half a century or so instead of trying to make things better.

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