Damien Chazelle’s La La Land has officially taken Hollywood by storm, earning accolades from critics and – as of last night – a record-setting seven Golden Globes (for whatever that’s worth). And how did that happen?
Relax, it’s not much of a mystery. La La Land is a pretty danged good movie. It’s a sentimental, nostalgic musical about struggling artists in Hollywood, dancing around not just each other but life-altering decisions that could send them on a path to greatness or to mediocrity. Like Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash, it takes the creative drive with which filmmakers are intimately familiar and uses it as the foundation for personal drama. And unlike Whiplash, it’s emotionally uplifting and romantic.
So if Whiplash – a film that argues that abuse might be justified if, in the end, that abuse produces greatness – can win three Academy Awards, it stands to reason that La La Land might have a one-way ticket to Oscar glory. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay nominations seem to be a sure thing (could La La Land really be the fourth film to earn all five of those Oscars?), and of course Best Original Song, Best Original Score and probably Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Costume Design and Best Production Design nominations are probably also in the cards.
It’s not a sure thing, of course. The nominations haven’t even been announced yet and for all we know the Academy could rally at the last minute behind any of La La Land’s competitors, like Moonlight or Hidden Figures. But we’ve been here before. We’ve seen the tides turning in favor of one particular film that captures the film industry’s fancy, and we’ve seen – time and time again – that fancy flung at movies that celebrate just how awesome the film industry is and, by extension, the Academy voters.
After all, films like Birdman, Argo and The Artist have been doing a very good job of pushing the Academy’s buttons in recent years. And just like with La La Land it’s easy to see why. Birdman is about the rich, exciting, and seemingly important inner life of an actor who dares to direct, even though his mainstream movies seem to have robbed him of the respect of both critics and his peers. The ending is complicated but the implication is that he was totally amazing and deserved to be appreciated. Then of course there’s Argo, a film that gives Hollywood quite a bit of credit for rescuing American diplomats from the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979.
Both Birdman and Argo are well made, maybe even great films that have an undeniable appeal to a demographic of people who make – and, at the end of the year, vote for – films. And although La La Land isn’t specifically about the film industry is does dramatize the plight of the struggling actor, as we watch Emma Stone sing and dance from one humiliating audition to another, in search of one great opportunity to prove herself and enter the world of stardom. The film culminates in a song that toasts everyone who makes movies or tries to. “Here’s to the ones who dream,” she croons. “Foolish as they may seem.”
But Birdman and Argo aren’t as sentimental as La La Land, not even by half. The film’s romance is intimate and dreamlike. The film’s finale is wistful and maybe even a little schmaltzy. If there is a parallel in recent awards season memory it’s undeniably The Artist, a film that also celebrates a bygone era of cinema history – specifically the silent era – and also catalogues the romance between two artists as their careers rise and fall, but rarely at the same time.
The Artist was all anybody could talk about in the early days of 2012, when it was nominated for ten Academy Awards and was seemingly predestined to take home quite a few of them. In the end it won five, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Score and Best Costume Design. It was quite the story that year, the little film that could, and the first (mostly) silent movie to win Best Picture since the first year of the Academy Awards.
But fast forward five years, and how do we remember The Artist? It rarely comes up in conversation except in reference to its Best Picture win, and although the competition wasn’t spectacularly stiff that year (it competed against the likes of Hugo, Midnight in Paris, The Help and The Descendants), it is often suggested that the Academy went a little too gaga for The Artist and perhaps should have awarded another film instead.
To be fair, The Artist is a lovely little film. It’s a funny, romantic, kind motion picture with two great stars and one very cute dog, a satisfying throwback that deserved at least a small amount of acclaim. But one could easily argue that The Artist’s virtues are overshadowed by its Academy Award for Best Picture, a notoriety that comes with elevated expectations and instantaneous, if not particularly fair comparisons to previous Oscar winners in the category. It should be obvious that the The Artist is far, far from the worst motion picture the Academy has ever honored (COUGHCrashCOUGH), but it clearly doesn’t have the same cultural significance, dramatic power or lasting appeal of films like Rocky, The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia, and now it’s all too easy to take it to task for that very (unreasonable) criticism.
La La Land is, likewise, a lovely little film. As such, it may very well be the next The Artist, a film that makes fellow filmmakers lose their minds over how great it is, but for reasons that don’t necessarily translate outside of the industry environment. It’s easy to be seduced by assurances that you, your experiences and your particular plight are beautiful and important.
Maybe, just maybe, La La Land is every Hollywood insider’s genuine pick for the Best Picture of 2016, regardless of its celebration for everything that Hollywood insiders love. But it’s not too late to take a hard look at La La Land’s sentimentality, and consider whether it’s more accurate to say that this lively little lark is the “Best Picture of the Year,” or whether it’s just the picture that makes the industry look best.
Top Photos: Lionsgate / The Weinstein Company
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.