‘La La Land’: Why Exuberance Matters

The 'frontrunner backlash' is right on schedule as Damien Chazelle's musical takes the final turn

La La Land
Courtesy of Lionsgate

A few weeks ago, my father became gravely ill. After spending a few days with him in another state, I had to get back to Los Angeles. Before I left, I put in the screener of “La La Land” for him. It was the first time I’d seen him smile in days and I remember thinking that if this blissful expression was my last memory of him, it would be a good one. Don’t worry – he’s okay now, and I don’t tell you this to be maudlin, but to reiterate the power of film. And to offer some explanation as to why the recent “La La Land” backlash annoys me more than this annual tradition usually does.

It happens every year — the frontrunners that people adored in the fall suddenly don’t seem quite as wonderful, or worse, “important,” as the year goes on.  It’s as predictable a part of the season as awkward audience questions at Q&A sessions. But it’s perhaps exacerbated in a year where diversity is so at the forefront of the discussion; a film some have perceived as “white people with champagne problems” seems almost antagonistic in that context.

Plus, the best picture race this year is full of excellent films, from wonderfully told feel-good stories like “Hidden Figures” and “Lion” to the sublime filmmaking of “Moonlight” and daring storytelling of “Manchester by the Sea” and “Arrival.” So I’m not surprised people would feel so passionately about their top choice. But it isn’t necessary to tear one film down to elevate another. The fact that all of these films have had such success, both with audiences and critics, is a huge achievement on its own.

And don’t get me wrong; there are people I’ve spoken to who have genuine points about why they don’t like “La La Land” or any of the other nominated pictures or performances. Criticism is fine. Personal tastes are what they are. What gets my hackles up is when the out-sized passion of others somehow hampers appreciation of a film. It happens all the time. “The King’s Speech” was wonderful until it started beating “The Social Network.” “The Artist” was a blast until it wasn’t deep enough. “Argo” was universally appreciated, then labeled Hollywood navel gazing.

I understand the problem with hype, and I’m just as guilty of feeding the beast. It’s hard not to get my hopes up when a festival hit finally makes its way to me, and I’ve surely judged a film against its buzz rather than on its own merits. What strikes me as particularly odd about anti-“La La Land” sentiment is the fact that the movie itself is such a joy. How could anyone begrudge such pure, infectious exuberance?

There are those who would call the film calculated, as though it were designed to win awards. That’s odd, considering it was turned down by countless studios, and original musicals aren’t exactly guaranteed at the box office or awards shows. I recall hearing similar criticism about “Birdman” when it began its awards sweep. But in what world does a movie starring an actor who’s been off the grid for the better part of a decade, directed by a filmmaker known for art house fare, begin as Oscar bait?

Then there’s the Important with a capital “I” problem. “La La Land” can be brushed off by haters as fluff, a dessert at a time when people need a hearty meal. This is something else I’ve never understood. First of all, don’t undersell entertainment that makes you feel good – it’s difficult to do, and “La La Land” commits the sin of making it look easy. Also, it seems in direct conflict with another complaint I hear about the film: that the ending is a downer. Fluff has never been so melancholy. And finally, I don’t see how the story of love and the sacrifices we make for our dreams could be deemed lightweight.

Maybe it’s just that the film has become such a Goliath. The frontrunner always has a big bull’s-eye on its back. And in small circles like #FilmTwitter, this can take on a feeling that the balance may actually shift. But don’t count on it. With awards from PGA, DGA, Golden Globes and BAFTA already on “La La Land’s” mantle, anything else winning the top prize would be a shock for the ages.