Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: How 'La La Land' Misleads on Race, Romance and Jazz
The musical is "daring and deserving," writes the NBA legend and culture critic, but the "bigoted message" of a black man selling out and the "childish notion" of ambition before love disappoints.
A recent Saturday Night Live skit depicts two street-tough cops yelling at a handcuffed man they just arrested because he didn't think La La Land was great. "It dragged in the middle," he complains. "You sick son of a bitch!" one cop barks. "You disgust me!" This pretty much distills the rift in American pop culture that is nearly as contentious as the rift in American politics. As someone who finds La La Land bold, daring and deserving of all its critical and financial success, I can also admit that there are a few elements that warrant closer examination, particularly regarding its portrayal of jazz, romance and people of color. In fact, the better a work of art is, the more we must dissect it, because now we're not just measuring Rotten Tomatoes popularity or boffo box office, we're assessing its proper place in our cultural canon.
No, I don't think the film needs more black people. Writer-director Damien Chazelle should tell the story as he sees fits with whatever ethnic arrangement he desires. However, it is fair to question his color wheel when it involves certain historical elements — such as jazz. As an aficionado with over 5,000 jazz albums and having had my own jazz label, Cranberry Records, I'm happy whenever jazz takes center stage in a story, as it did in Miles Ahead, Bird, Round Midnight and Mo' Better Blues. Jazz is a uniquely African-American music form born in New Orleans and raised in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. Sure, I would have loved to see a film like La La Land years ago starring singer-dancer Gregory Hines, the master of improvisational tap dance whose tapping could sound like a jazz drummer. Having said that, I'm still delighted to see Ryan Gosling play a man (Sebastian) devoted to the artistry of traditional jazz. But I'm also disturbed to see the one major black character, Keith (John Legend), portrayed as the musical sellout who, as Sebastian sees it, has corrupted jazz into a diluted pop pablum.
Wait just a minute!
The white guy wants to preserve the black roots of jazz while the black guy is the sellout? This could be a deliberate ironic twist, but if it is, it's a distasteful one for African-Americans. One legitimate complaint that marginalized people (women, people of color, Muslims, the LGBT community, etc.) have had about Hollywood in the past is that when they were portrayed, it was done in a negative way. The ditzy blonde, the Muslim terrorist, the gay predator are all familiar stereotypes from years of TV and movies. So much has been done in recent years to overcome those debasing images, but we still have to be careful. It's not that a black man can't be the sellout or the drug dealer, it's just that they shouldn't be if they're the only prominent black character in the story. Whether it's intentional or unintentional, that sends a bigoted message rippling through our society.
I'm equally interested in how the film portrays romance, because pop culture (movies, TV, books, music) is the major source of information about romantic relationships for our youth. That's where they learn about what to look for in a mate, what a relationship should look like, how to treat each other. So when we throw a beloved film like La La Land on the self-help shelf of love, we need to understand just what the film is saying and whether that's accurate or even healthy. At first, the story follows the traditional heterosexual romantic-comedy formula of boy-meets-girl, and they fall in love. This is followed by boy-loses-girl, due to either ego (self-absorption) or a corrupt relative or official (meddling parent, jealous friend, hostile boss). The third part is that the lovers prove they are worthy of love by overcoming their ego and relative issues to come together in the end. But La La Land ends with the self-absorbed egos having irrevocably wedged the lovers apart, and neither is mature enough to overcome it. That's pretty realistic, since so many relationships crash and burn there.
The problem comes when we romanticize the crash and burn. Then the drama of the breakup seems more fulfilling than the prospect of actual romance, which can then seem mundane in the long run. Now a continual series of melodramatic breakups makes a person seem more tragically edgy and becomes justification for why they can't find real love.
Why do Sebastian and Mia break up? Because they are both obsessed with their careers and prefer pursuing those to pursuing each other. This is a similar theme to that in Chazelle's brilliant previous film, Whiplash, in which Andrew (Miles Teller) dumps his supportive girlfriend in order to fully immerse himself in his jazz drumming. Clearly, the only love interest he has is his abusive but equally obsessive teacher (J.K. Simmons). By the end, we realize Andrew is on the path to being a great drummer, but a life that is just as alienated — and alienating — as his teacher's. Onscreen, their final scene in which they perform to the upper heights of their art seems heroically cool, but after the show, all they have is a hot plate and cable TV.
Both films might be cautionary tales to warn against the single-minded pursuit of self-aggrandizing dreams. After all, Mia gets her movie star career, but seems locked in a perfectly pleasant but passionless marriage. Sebastian gets his jazz club, but is alone and regretful about what might have been with Mia. At the end, they smile wistfully at each other and the lives they might have had. Is the film encouraging us to weigh the value of our dreams against the reality of love? Is it saying that, although the sacrifice of a relationship or two is sad, it's a small price to pay to follow our dreams? Seems to be. In the song "The Audition (The Fools Who Dream)," Mia sings of her artist aunt who inspires her: "A bit of madness is key / To give us to color to see / Who knows where it will lead us? / And that's why they need us." The problem with that is it implies we can't have both: We can't follow our dreams and have a decent relationship. The fire of one consumes the other.
As Sportin' Life from Porgy and Bess would say, "It ain't necessarily so."
That's where the romanticizing comes in. The whole childish doomed-romance genre celebrates personal achievement with only an obligatory sad nod toward the consequences. Mia also sings this about her aunt: "She lives in her liquor / And died with a flicker / I'll always remember the flame." Sure, you'll remember the flame because you're too blinded by your own ambition to see the real moral: She died with a flicker because she was an alcoholic burnout! Even Sebastian wonders about how accurately he sees things in "City of Stars": "City of stars / There's so much that I can't see." Starlight romanticizes whatever it illuminates.
A few weeks ago at the SAG Awards while receiving the Life Achievement Award, Lily Tomlin shared a regret, saying that when she was younger she had been "ambitious about the wrong things." In other words, just because you have a dream, it doesn't make that a sacred calling. The artist as Christ-like figure sacrificing herself to give her art to the people is a childish notion that is just bedazzling one's self-promotion. As Mr. Antolini says in The Catcher in the Rye: "The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one." Had Mia and Sebastian chosen to live humbly, they might have had their success — or not — and been happy together.
I'm glad we have a shining star like La La Land to add to our movie firmament. The characters are delightful and charming, the musical numbers are imaginative, the soundtrack is addicting. I know I'll be watching it again and again over the years, just as I'll be listening to the wonderful soundtrack. But every time I do, along with the immense joy, I'll have a tiny nagging feeling of, "What if?"
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.