La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s colorful musical and bittersweet love story, was expected to win the Oscars’ most prestigious prize, the Best Picture trophy, fulfilling its long-predicted destiny and overcoming the inevitable backlash it faced as awards season wore on.
But it didn’t win (though it won six other awards). In the strangest event most of us have seen in an Oscars broadcast, presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway read the wrong card, and the La La Land producers were mostly through their speech before the Oscars’ producers realized the error.
But would it have deserved the award? We gathered some of the Vox Culture team to discuss.
La La Land makes a lot of sense as a Best Picture winner. It also makes no sense as one.
In some ways, the movie — a musical about show business, for goodness' sake — is a prototypical Oscar frontrunner. But it's also surprisingly bittersweet and slight for a movie that was nominated for 14 prizes and won six. In other words, it both makes perfect sense and no sense as the Oscar behemoth it is.
That might be why it's proved so surprisingly divisive. To be sure, the majority of people seem to love or at least really like this movie. I'm in the "really like" camp, but I could also stand not to hear about it for the next several years. And those who hate it have made arguments against the movie's racial and gender politics, its script, and even its depiction of jazz. Like all Oscar frontrunners, it was battered on all sides.
We'll get into all of that eventually, but for now, let's start with the most basic question of them all. Did La La Land deserve to win Best Picture?
Alex Abad-Santos: I would have been happy with La La Land winning Best Picture. That’s not to say Moonlight and the other nominees aren’t deserving; really, I would’ve been happy with a win by anything but the overwrought, dramatic sob orgy that is Manchester by the Sea.
What I can say is that there are 27 minutes in La La Land — the first two numbers and the ending — that I can’t shake from my brain and want to watch over and over. The inventive and meticulous tracking shot in the first number, and the resonance of that final moment between Sebastian and Mia, won me over. A lot of the film hinges on the audience believing in that ending, and in my case, it worked.
Caroline Framke: As someone who realized half an hour into La La Land that I definitely wasn't going to like it as much as its biggest fans, I'll freely admit that it doesn’t deserve the entirety of the recent backlash against it.
It's not the revolutionary movie it's sometimes described as (the modern musical is a very well-trod genre!), but it's heartfelt and beautifully shot, and Emma Stone gives a fantastic performance that — as I’ve written before — ends up stitching together the thinner aspects of the story.
Still: In no way is it the best movie of the year. La La Land is the kind of perfectly pleasant, well-constructed heartache that makes for a solid middle-of-the-road contender. I enjoyed the opening Los Angeles freeway number (even if it made me resent the many hours I've sat in LA traffic without getting a live musical break), and I was genuinely touched by "Audition" and the melancholy ending.
Everything sandwiched in between felt like a not particularly interesting afterthought, as if Chazelle's script were just setting up the requisite building blocks to get to and from those moments. But La La Land is technicolor escapism wrapped in a Hollywood bow; I understand why it was favored to win.
Alissa Wilkinson: The Best Picture award goes to the producers of a film for an achievement in producing — there's no specific Oscar for producing — and by that token, I'd have been just fine with La La Land's win (though I’m delighted with the result). It's not a perfect film. It's not a visionary work of art like Moonlight, or a showcase for performances like Fences, or a retelling of forgotten history like Hidden Figures, or a devastating emotional experience like Arrival or Manchester by the Sea.
But it pulls off a rare thing in Hollywood: a story that is funny and resonant for most of the audience, visually interesting, and occasionally, as in the scenes Alex cites, genuinely show-stopping. I persist in thinking that Chazelle's last film, Whiplash, is better as a film, but I liked La La Land enough to see it again.
And I'm impressed that its producers were able to make a nostalgia film that's also very representative of 2016, with some tricks and talent and vision to make it all happen. And because it's a film about Hollywood and the Oscars love films about Hollywood, it always seemed as if it was going to win Best Picture, anyway. (That it didn’t is a stunner.)
So what’s La La Land actually about?
Todd: Fascinatingly, La La Land seems to be a bit of a Rorschach test for the audience. There are few films from 2016 that are as open to viewers reading essentially whatever they want into them.
That may be because its story — guy and girl fall in love, and then life gets in the way — is intentionally simple. Or it might be because Chazelle deliberately strips away all frippery in his filmmaking, the better to give the film's biggest moments a chance to shine. The opening freeway number wouldn't have the resonance it does if Chazelle had spent the rest of the film trying to top it (indeed, the very similar number at a Hollywood party that comes a few minutes later gets talked about much less).
But the result is that the film ends up feeling a bit hollow, which has led to a lot of the backlash. Somewhere deep down, I'd bet that Chazelle understands having a white guy lecture a bunch of people about the history of jazz is, at the very least, deeply ironic.
However, because Chazelle pares everything back to the basics, the scenes where Sebastian talks about jazz leave him feeling like the only fully developed character, despite how thoroughly Emma Stone tries to make Mia more than a "struggling actress."
I'm not 100 percent sure this is a flaw of the movie, though my chief complaint about it — that the latter half of the second act feels less like the story of a breakup, and more like a recounting of the story of a breakup you saw in a movie one time — stems directly from that quality. So, for lack of a better question, what do you think this movie is about, anyway?
Alissa: I confess that I have no idea what people are talking about when they say Sebastian is lecturing people about jazz — he seems like a joke to me, a know-it-all who has to get cut down to size by reality. Nor, to be perfectly honest, do I agree with the suggestion that La La Land is hollow. The first half is, sure. But the second half feels pretty weighty to me, even if it's not "important." Having your dreams cut down to size is a pretty privileged problem to have, but it's still a familiar one, even dressed up in candy hues.
So that, I guess, is what I always saw the film being "about": those early glory days when it feels like anything could happen, the world is your oyster, and every party and encounter could be the one that changes your life.
And then, one day, almost imperceptibly, something changes. Life gets real. People disappoint you. The bright lights get a little dimmer. You discover your high-minded ideals and commitment to your dreams aren’t going to be enough to put food on the table. Love doesn't conquer everything.
I am allergic to the idea of the romanticized starving artist, which is probably why I embraced La La Land's sense that success is by no means guaranteed, and working hard counts for a lot, but luck is a big part of it too.
And of course, the film lets its protagonists fulfill a lot of their dreams in the end (much faster, I might add, than seems realistic — that's my real narrative quibble with the film). But it's not as romantic as it sets out to be, and sometimes life guides you down an unexpected path that's still a good one. I like that, and it makes sense to me.
Alex: A lot of how you interpret the movie comes down to what you think of that opening number. It’s a rainbow of people all dancing in unity, and there’s a band in the back of that truck. There’s a band in the truck! And everyone is singing about how their hopes and dreams of fame will come true one day.
But there’s a cynical edge to it — in reality, this spectacle and all these dreamers are stuck in traffic, and their pain and failure are masked by "another day of sun.” That opening piece, even with its grandeur, is more sarcastic than aspirational.
And the sly cynicism of the first number is alive and well throughout the rest of the movie, which is about the realization that it’s better to be lucky than good when it comes to achieving your dreams, and that your dreams are going to change as you start to accept reality and the fact that it’s so easy to conflate success with fulfillment.
Caroline: I'm so glad Alissa and Alex went first, because my lack of answer to this question is, I think, why I didn't connect with La La Land like I (genuinely!) expected to.
I came away from the movie thinking it was maybe about the sanctity of art, or how a single-minded focus on creating it can get in the way of human connections, or maybe just, like, how Hollywood is a hard place to achieve a dream, or something? It felt muddled is what I'm saying.
I want to be more convinced by arguments like Alex's that insist La La Land is more cynical, if only because the bittersweet ending keeping Mia and Sebastian apart was my favorite part of the movie.
But if I had to pick a theme, it'd have to be the subtitle for “Audition,” the film’s most nakedly emotional song. "Fools Who Dream" is about as neat a summary of La La Land's contradictory package of hopeful and bitter impulses, encouraging creation while acknowledging that reality has a way of bringing you back down to earth, even when it looks like you've truly taken off.
La La Land is happy. Nah, La La Land is sad!
Todd: Now that the Oscars — and all attendant discussion — are over, La La Land gets to slide peacefully into film history, where it will be judged either as a great film for the ages or a movie that is inextricably linked to its time.
And that "time" is what's most interesting to me, because to a degree, the movie's huge level of success has been directly tied to the feeling that everybody needed something a little bit uplifting and happy at the end of 2016.
It was a hard year, and La La Land, at least superficially, is a happy movie, filled with bouncy music and bright dresses and fun dancing.
But when I think back on La La Land, its deep sense of melancholy is what sticks with me. If I have complaints about the film, they pale in comparison to the way I feel about its last 15 minutes, which argue, in essence, that happiness is sometimes fleeting, that love can be ephemeral, that you're as changed by the relationships that don't work out as you are by the ones that do. That's what I love about La La Land (AND ABOUT LOVE), and that’s what sticks with me.
What about the rest of you? Do you think this movie is more happy or sad?
Caroline: Taken as a whole, it's more sad than not. Both Mia and Sebastian end up achieving their dreams, but at a cost. They lose the sense of wonder that initially brought them to Los Angeles to chase their dreams, because they’re forced to exchange it for the pragmatism required to actually make them happen. They fight; they break each other's hearts; they don't end up together.
But it's hard to shake that final moment when Mia walks out of Seb's jazz club. They're visibly aching over being apart, and yet they still exchange a conspiratorial smile. Maybe they had to change their ways to make their dreams come true, but hey, they still did it, didn't they?
Alissa: Oh, it's a sad movie. How do I know? I told my mother to see it, and once she did, she said she liked it but wished it had ended more cheerfully.
"It's realistic, though," I said to her.
"Yes, that's right," she agreed.
Which means sad might not be the right word. Melancholy is the one I keep falling back on. But maybe "like real life" is right. La La Land has enough singing and dancing and romance and magic to bring joy — and enough disappointment and wistfulness to keep it from getting too over the top.
The ending isn't a typical Hollywood musical ending (though the film shows you what the Hollywood ending would be), but it's not really depressing. It's just kind of real. Which is maybe not what we expect from a nostalgia musical.
Alex: This is a happy movie. No one dies in a fire. No one kills their kids in a fire. No one has to overcome a drug-addicted mother and the societal stigma of being a gay black man. No one has to deal with overt racism at NASA.
The saddest parts of La La Land are when a man plays a song he doesn’t love with John Legend, and when no one shows up to a one-woman show in Los Angeles. And the movie ends with both main characters achieving their dreams and being wildly successful and much happier than they were when the movie began.
Fine, Sebastian and Mia don’t end up together. You see what could have been, and that’s sad, I guess. As Alissa said, there’s a realness to it (which I guess is hilarious, since this movie loves fantasy sequences).
It's not unrealistic to think about what might have happened with the various loves of your life and dream about what could have been. But just because a relationship ends doesn’t mean the feelings you shared didn’t exist. That’s happy, right? Or at least, happy enough.
And if not, well, there’s always the band in the truck.