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Column: In defense of 'La La Land'

In the most enchanting number in "La La Land," Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone make their way to a park bench overlooking the lights of Los Angeles.

When they arrive at the appointed spot, the pair looks out at the scene of shimmering technicolor beauty and immediately dismiss it with a pair of Millennial sneers.

"Not much to look at," Gosling says. Stone replies that she's seen better.

The characters are joking. But the popularity police, immune to the idealism of the American movie musical, are not.

Thus we have reached the great artificial movie debate of the current Oscar season: Is Damien Chazelle's "La La Land" a keen reinvention of a classic form or a piece of insufferable schlock sunk by the weight of its own clichés?

[Jeff Simon found much to love about 'La La Land,' but thinks its stars should not pick up Oscars]

That depends on how cynical you are, and how much you allow the appetites of American consumers to define your opinions.

If you catch yourself swooning to the beauty of the fading Los Angeles twilight, your first impulse should not be to ruthlessly interrogate your own pleasure at the hackneyed romanticism of the scene.

That vulgar sunset, according to the annoying little Puritan who has taken up permanent residence on America's left shoulder, is just another overused trope whose pleasures were surely exhausted the last time J.M.W. Turner set paintbrush to canvas in the mid-19th century.

And all the starry-eyed stuff about the swirling skies above the Hollywood Hills or the constellation of house lights creating "a silver shine that stretches to the sea"? That's just a cheap narcotic designed to disable your brain and distract you from the pressing concerns of true art.

Stop me if this is starting to sound like a conspiracy theory. Because it is.

Part of the film's success -- overlooked by many of its newly arrived detractors -- is its constant critique of its character's own romanticism and nostalgia. Embedded within its magic hour reveries, old-school fantasias and disquisitions on the value of the classic is a clear acknowledgement of the inherent naiveté of its characters' positions.

For me, that makes the film both a paean to the great movie musicals of old and an admission that old forms must adapt in order to connect with new audiences.

To be sure, "La La Land" is not a perfect film. Hand-wringing critics point out that it carries little of the narrative power and ingenuity of worthier films such as "Moonlight," which surely deserve more attention and more awards.

Of course "Moonlight" is a better and more important film than "La La Land." But this kind of comparison is not productive. It plays into the toxic perception of the Oscar race or the box office as definitive measures of quality, and dooms us to endless repetitions of this tug-of-war between critical reaction and popular success.

As NPR Music Editor Stephen Thompson put it in a 2011 tweet that remains one of my favorite critical perceptions of recent times: "My life's work from here on out: raging against the soft idiocy of 'The Wrong People Like This, So I Wish To Declare It Culturally Invalid.' "

In this case, "the wrong people" seem to be Oscar voters and vast swaths of the public. So they must be put in their place, even at the expense of critical logic.

The flurry of critical takedowns of "La La Land" -- the bulk of which, curiously, came out out only after it became clear that the film was popular -- are based on some strange assumptions.

It would take a doctoral thesis to parse out all the reactionary threads in these various lukewarm takes. The strangest one comes from putative jazz experts like Steve Chambers, who lashed out in Vulture at the film's positioning of Ryan Gosling's character as a self-declared savior of the art form.

This position requires the sky-high suspension of critical faculties. "La La Land" is a lot of things, but it is not subtle. It ought to be clear to anyone who has paid attention to the evolution of jazz over the last 20 years that Gosling's character has flawed notions about the art form.

The fact that he harbors impossibly nostalgic ideas about the "purity" of jazz -- an art form whose very nature is change -- is the basis for the film's critique of nostalgia. And John Legend's character, a black musician who fuses the language of old-school jazz with pop music in the mode of Trombone Shorty or Jon Batiste, is not a sell-out but a savoir.

In the end, the lives that Gosling and Stone's characters imagine for themselves turn out to impossible. And though the film has some version of a happy ending, their yearning for the imagined glory of the past is never quite reconciled with the demands of the present.

That tension is one of the reasons "La La Land," a film obsessed with the idea of the classic, seems destined to become a classic itself.


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