Here at ORWAV, we just can’t stop talking about La La Land. And with good reason – Damien Chazelle’s modern take on old-school Hollywood has been nominated for an impressive 14 Academy Awards, and enchanted audiences and critics alike. We’ve been here before – in 2012, silent drama The Artist was nominated for 10 Oscars and went on to win five. Fast-forward five years, however, and the word many would use to describe it would be ‘overrated.’
Phil: Let’s kick this debate off with an easy question. You’ve all seen La La Land – so what did you think?
Calum: An almost perfect film… bar the script, which let the side down. You could tell he wrote it before really cutting his teeth on Whiplash, which is fascinating.
Kambole: I think it’s very deserving of the critical praise heaped upon it for the emotion and wonder it conjures up on technical magic alone. I agree with Calum that it isn’t as tight as Whiplash, but it’s riveting nonetheless.
Sian: I was entirely caught up in it, and left the cinema in such a heady state of glee, but thinking back it was the ending more than anything that got me. I mentally wandered off in the middle.
Calum: I remember getting a proper kick up the backside when John Legend appeared, bringing the funkiest funk.
Kambole: I found it funny that the guy with the best singing voice had the most generic song.
Calum: Here’s to the scrappy amateurs, and all that.
Phil: We could talk about this movie for a week (and what a week it’d be), but let’s bring The Artist into the discussion. Plenty of critics have drawn a line between the two films, but is it a fair comparison to make?
Sian: I find the concept of Hollywood making films about Hollywood such a sickly love-in – but All About Eve and Singin’ in the Rain are two of my favourite films ever, so maybe I’m just as much a sucker for nostalgia as Mia.
Calum: Does Hollywood come off all that well in All About Eve?
Sian: I suppose not. Perhaps my issue with La La Land is its worshipping of the American Dream within the context of Hollywood. I much prefer how Hail, Caesar! and Birdman handled the cynicism of that world while still being a part of it.
Calum: I think context is important. The Artist was a parody by a director known in France for parodies [particularly the OSS-117 films], and it starred his usual leading man and his usual leading lady. People forget that it has the most out-there context of any Best Picture winner in years.
Sian: Arguably The Artist mimics the genre it’s parodying better than La La Land.
Kambole: I think genre is important to consider as well. The Golden Age of musicals that La La Land is celebrating is not nearly as dead (to broader audiences) as silent cinema, and because of that I think it has way more mainstream appeal and staying power.
Phil: It’s true that, in the context of his other films, it isn’t a huge leap for Hazanavicius to make something like The Artist. But if you look at The Artist as a parody it becomes strange to think of the Academy showering it with love – almost like they missed the joke?
Calum: “Parody” doesn’t have to mean mockery. Maybe “pastiche” is more appropriate.
Sian: Oh, but don’t you think that’s part of the joy as well – if the Academy have no idea? It’s like Sean Spicer retweeting The Onion.
Phil: I love that comparison.
Kambole: I feel like sometimes people who love a certain thing are the best equipped to parody it – might be more of a Flight of the Conchords/Bowie situation, unless they secretly hated him all these years…
Phil: It’s often said the best pastiches are the ones that reference several things at once – it’s why Airplane! is one of the most enduring comedies ever. Do you think this is why La La Land and The Artist have both found such large audiences? The fact that they draw on multiple points of intertextual reference?
Sian: I think, on the whole, people are more caught up in the nostalgia of both films, rather than being overtly aware of what they’re referencing and enjoying it on that level.
Calum: I definitely agree. Just look at how divisive Hail, Caesar! was, and that really was reference after reference after in-joke after in-joke… without the same warm embracing quality.
Phil: The Artist may not have become the punchline that, say, Avatar did, but it’s not exactly considered a modern classic today either. Why do you think mainstream audiences forgot it so quickly, and what does that bode for La La Land‘s legacy?
Calum: I think The Artist wasn’t helped by its strange dichotomy of mainstream-friendly lightness and the fact that it’s really built for die-hard cinephiles. People talk about it now as “overrated”, or a strange aberration in the Academy’s spotless record, but that does a huge disservice not only to the film but also its actual reception at the actual time.
Kambole: I feel like if you tried to convince someone who wasn’t a cinephile or significantly older than you to sit down and watch a silent film with intertitles, you’d struggle. La La Land also has the benefit of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s nuclear grade charm.
Sian: And the director of Whiplash. That’s a big card to play.
Calum: But, of course, it’s already come up against being inevitably dismissed as “fluff”.
Sian: Certain films come along at the right time and that’s what makes them work. La La Land is nostalgic, and lovely, and charming, and the world’s a bit broken, and maybe that’s just what we want to see right now.
Kambole: I feel like there’s some kind of escapist film at the Oscars every year though.
Calum: The escapism idea can apply to La La Land for obvious reasons; I don’t know that that speaks positively to its staying-power. Whatever staying-power it has (and I do think it has a lot) is down to more straightforward things like spectacular costumes and music, and how well-made it is.
Sian: I think it has more staying power than The Artist, but I wonder if there really is a correlation between awards and staying power.
Calum: Academy Awards aren’t much more than a measure of how the American film industry is thinking in any one year. I think it’s telling that we’ve been talking about The Artist as having faded in the popular eye. It’s true, but it’s disingenuous to suggest this means it’s diminished. Cinephiles still enjoy it, and remember it. At the very worst, that’s probably La La Land‘s fate.
Sian: Plus, novelty plays massively into both films. The Artist has its gimmick of being a silent movie, and La La Land‘s been billed as the new musical for the 21st century…
Calum: They said that about Chicago.
Kambole: This is probably where we can factor in the desire for escapism again – I can’t remember the political climate surrounding Chicago in 2002, but I can see people wanting more fun Golden Age pastiches in the next few years.
Calum: Gladiator and Lord of the Rings still seem very ingrained in the public consciousness as Best Picture winners, despite not really grappling (overtly, at least) with “serious issues.” By contrast, Crash did, and to this day it’s hugely castigated for being silly.
Phil: All this talk of musicals brings me nicely onto our last point: there’s already a lot of interest, unsurprisingly, in adapting La La Land for the stage. Ryan Gosling has even stated an interest in starring in it. Do you think it would work as well as the screen version?
Calum: With that music? Every time.
Sian: If they played it right it could be such a glorious stage adaptation. It’s already got the hype behind it as well, and there’s a big desire right now for blockbuster stage shows.
Kambole: I’m already sold. The music is amazing. Plus, it’s a surprisingly low-key musical when you consider it’s mostly two characters singing and dancing, and how the film kinda strips away a lot of the flash surrounding each song as the film goes on.
Calum: I really hope the stage version of ‘Audition’ is just a giant papier-mâché Mia head, operated by pulleys.
Phil: And on that horrible note, I think we’ve come to the end of our debate…