La La Land: anatomy of a backlash

Reader, you should have seen the queue: it stretched all the way out of the cinema, down the street, round the corner and on for another half a kilometre or so. This was the line for La La Land at the London Film Festival late last year, and there was a definite hum of enthusiasm in the air.

Hype had already built around the musical since its first screening at the Venice Film Festival a couple of months earlier, and as a result, there were so many people desperate to see the movie at its first London screening that the cinema couldn’t accommodate them all. Your humble writer managed to grab one of the last seats in the house – and again, the atmosphere was electric: the audience laughed in all the right places, and as the final credits rolled on Damien Chazelle’s airy romance, a ripple of applause went up.

You’ve probably noted all the critical acclaim by now, and seen the La La Land poster covered in a sea of stars from all those gushing notices. Yet over the past few weeks, the tide has begun to turn against Chazelle’s musical. Hadley Freeman wrote an amusing piece about the film’s jazz-snob leading man, played by Ryan Gosling.

A more serious criticism argues that La La Land’s racially insensitive in its casting, given that it’s all about a white guy defending jazz – a form of music created by African Americans. Other commentators have suggested that co-star Emma Stone’s character is something of a blank; still others have said that, really, Gosling and Stone’s singing and dancing isn’t up to much.

Those are only a very brief example of the criticisms levelled at La La Land over the past few weeks – for more a more detailed top-down view, these pieces at the Guardian and the Washington Post will give you just about everything you need. The deeper question, at least for us, relates to the nature of the backlash itself. How can a fairly harmless indie film go from acclaim to fairly comprehensive criticism so quickly?

Based on our years of watching and viewing movies, here’s a theory of how the backlash process works…

Step one: the early reviews

Like so many indie flicks, La La Land made its debut at a film festival. On paper, being a critic at a film festival sound like the best gig in the world: you get to sit around watching movies all day and get paid for it.

The reality, however, is a bit more stressful than it initially sounds. First, you’re spending eleven-or-so days watching dozens of films back-to-back. While you might be familiar with some of the movies on offer at any given festival, the whole point of these events is to get an early look at work from up-and-coming directors or filmmakers from more obscure parts of the globe.

This means you could be up bright and early to see an Italian drama for breakfast, before tucking into a Dutch thriller for elevenses, a Japanese horror at lunchtime, a French animation for your mid-afternoon snack, an American biopic for dinner, and so on. The last film might end somewhere around midnight, and then you have to trudge back to your hotel room, a stack of barely-legible notes clutched in your fist, and  attempt to write reviews from them all – assuming you can even remember what happened in that film you saw at breakfast. It was Swiss, wasn’t it? Yes, probably Swiss.

Now, we’re not suggesting for one moment that you should throw a pity party for film critics. Rather, the above might help explain why, when a film comes along that’s different or unexpected, weary critics will suddenly jump out of their skins. A musical as light and frothy as La La Land must have felt like a sunny antidote to some of the more brooding works on offer at last year’s Venice film festival. As a comparison, Dutch director Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone (which was also in the main competition at Venice) is an exploration of how many horrible things Guy Pearce can do to men, women and livestock in two-and-a-half hours – a Supermarket Sweep of taboo-busting atrocities.

Step two: the second wave

So the festival critics love your movie, and the first wave of reviews are full of five-star verdicts. As the film filters out to other festivals, more critics and cinema lovers are enticed into going to see it after that initial burst of acclaim, and the positive word-of-mouth continues. Gradually, however, the dissenting voices begin to surface: in December last year, for example, critic Daniel Kimmel argued that La La Land is “a film that tries too hard and is always showing how much it’s straining.” That same month, the National Post’s critic Calum Marsh suggested that Chazelle’s technique as a director did much to mask his shortcomings as a dramatist.

Within a few short weeks, the cracks have begun to show.

Step three: awards hype

There are certain kinds of movie that awards bodies absolutely love. Movies that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit; movies that showcase the craft of acting. Most of all, Hollywood awards bodies love movies about Hollywood. Like silent-era love letter The Artist, the British Academy, the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild have clutched La La Land to their bosoms. The movie broke records at the Globes; at the Oscars, its 14 nominations puts it alongside All About Eve and Titanic for the most nods given to a single contender.

For most indie filmmakers, awards recognition is a gift from the gods: with a potential audience of millions, even a nomination or two can mean a movie with an otherwise tiny marketing budget can get some much-needed exposure. In the case of a movie like The Artist or La La Land, however, there’s the possibility that a sense of suspicion might set in among cinema-goers. Is La La Land really worth all those gold statues, or is this just another example of Oscar voters falling for the hype?

Step four: think-pieces

Despite all the gushing reviews from critics and the nominations from awards bodies, it’s this stage that’s the true turning point. A film’s release exposes a movie to the broader public for the first time, obviously, but something else also happens at the same time: columnists, bloggers, journalists and pundits start filing their opinion pieces.

On the surface, an opinion piece and a review might seem like the same thing – a review is, after all, one person’s opinion, albeit backed up by their years of experience and knowledge in one particular field of interest. But reviews are invariably written early, often after one viewing and frequently before a film’s release. They’re an impression, a snapshot based on an initial screening. This is why movies can sometimes receive a critical drubbing on their theatrical release, and then a more positive reassessment sometime later.

As a quick example, consider Mark Kermode and his change of heart over Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. When the movie first came out, Kermode gave it a negative review; 12 years later, he’d had time to reflect, revisit the movie, and came to the conclusion that he was wrong – so wrong that he even apologised to Spielberg for his initial verdict.

Articles and opinion pieces, unlike reviews, are the generally come after a period of rumination; writers have had a chance to think about a movie’s themes, ideas and flaws. They may have rewatched it a couple of times, talked about it with friends, and come to the conclusion that some of the flaws are more fundamental problems on closer inspection.

This is why, at least in this writer’s humble opinion, a movie as seemingly beloved as La La Land can suddenly seem so hated a few weeks later. Reviews are an expression of surprise, a reflection of an initial warm glow left behind by a first viewing; those later pieces are where a film’s wider implications are picked apart in more forensic detail.

Conclusion: it’s all good. No, really, it is

So if La La Land received a legion five-star reviews on one hand, and criticism for its insensitivity on the other, which is right? The answer, we’d argue, can be both. For a multitude of reasons, La La Land struck a chord with critics when it first emerged last year – and we were among the various outlets who expressed our affection for it. But this isn’t to say that La La Land is a perfect movie, or that the flaws found within it mean that it doesn’t deserve the praise it’s already received.

One of the positive things about our interconnected, online world is that we can read and hear opinions from critics in other countries and from different walks of life. Female writers, like Hadley Freeman, have pointed out the less likeable side of La La Land’s central male character, Sebastian, and noted the somewhat flat depiction of its other lead, Mia – both things that may have passed some male cinema-goers by.

Similarly, jazz fans have pointed out flaws in its depiction of their favourite music genre; lovers of classic musicals have argued that La La Land isn’t quite in the same league as the films it’s quoting; MTV’s Ira Madison III writes that, “If you’re gonna make a film about an artist staying true to the roots of jazz against all odds […] you’d think the artist would be black.”

Criticisms like these are important; films are made by ordinary, flawed people who are products of their upbringing and their own worldview, so it follows that what they make is also flawed. Singling films out and holding them up for praise is important for the industry as a whole; without it, small films like La La Land, Blue Ruin, It Follows, Lion or Moonlight wouldn’t get the word-of-mouth they need. But whether you call them backlashes or critical dissections, the more in-depth discussions of a film’s ideas and meaning – whether intended or otherwise – are just as important.

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