‘La La Land’ is a divisive front-runner

By Jake Coyle

AP Film Writer

These are divisive times. Agreement is hard to come by. Passions on both sides are inflamed. And “Saturday Night Live” is providing some of the most trenchant satire on the matter.

We are speaking, of course, about “La La Land.” No film – not Mel Gibson’s bloody Christian war tale “Hacksaw Ridge,” not Paul Verhoeven’s rape drama “Elle” – has sparked the opinion clash that Damien Chazelle’s toe-tapping musical about showbiz dreamers has.

It’s not just another day of sun, as the movie’s opening number goes. It’s another day of think pieces.

“La La Land,” romantic and sincere, might seem an unlikely lightning rod. But that’s the life of the front-runner, which “La La Land” most definitely is. It’s made more than $300 million at the box office globally (remarkable for a $30 million movie) and matched the record of 14 Academy Awards nominations.

One of the curious aspects of today’s Oscar season is that the movies that stand out get torn apart for imperfections, blind spots and – horror of horrors – sub-Astaire dancing.

The backlash was inevitable for “La La Land.” It’s just a matter now of whether – as most expect – the tide will turn back in time for the Feb. 26 Oscars. Here’s a rundown of the case against “La La Land.”

Too derivative: Some critics have said that “La La Land,” for all its charms, is a pale impression of the earlier musicals it was inspired by. There are the classic Hollywood backlot musicals such as Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in Vincent Minelli’s “The Band Wagon” (1953) and, of course, “Singin’ in the Rain” with Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds.

Counter: “La La Land” is undoubtedly deeply animated by nostalgia, but its characters – and the movie, itself – hinges on finding a contemporary experience with some connection to the classical.

The dancing: For others, the song-and-dance skills of Gosling and, to a lesser extent, Stone, aren’t up to the standards of Kelly, Reynolds or Astaire. They aren’t the equals of the musical greats.

Counter: Well, who is? That’s a high bar to meet. And part of the appeal of “La La Land” is that its characters, even as they soar, are more down to earth.

Too white: For a movie about jazz, it has few black people in it. Others have gone further in analyzing the film’s racial undercurrents. MTV’s Ira Madison called the movie “a white-savior film in tap shoes,” criticizing it for making Gosling’s character, Seb, the defender of true jazz, and Legend’s band-leader character the sell-out. For an African-American-created art form, this is backward.

Counter: This one is hard to shake. “La La Land” is almost totally focused on its two leads, and that is a glaring deficiency this year, because after two straight years of “OscarsSoWhite” backlash, inclusion is the theme of this year’s Academy Awards.

Its jazz is off: Others have taken issue with not just the racial undertones of the movie’s jazz, but of its portrait of the music. Jazz has been a specialty for Chazelle, a passionate aficionado who grew up playing drums and whose previous film, “Whiplash,” was about a jazz drummer. But some critics say the film’s view of jazz is cliched, that its terms – of jazz “purity,” of relevance – are out of sync with the more dynamic modern landscape of jazz.

Counter: Some of this may be confusing the perspective of Seb – whose self-seriousness is often meant to be a joke – for that of the movie.

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