Why People Are Turning On La La Land: An Investigation Into Overhyping Media
March 21, 2017
There is no doubt that movie critics and audiences alike love La La Land (2017). Its fourteen Oscar nominations (tied for the most nominations in Academy Awards history) has supported this high praise. However, as the movie had garnered more awards, recent reviews and audiences have been more critical of La La Land due to high expectations. It seems that La La Land’s Achilles heel is that is perceived as too good. Audiences come in with high expectations that will never be fully fulfilled.
The Ms. Print recently surveyed students opinions on La La Land. 55% of those surveyed, agreed that La La Land was good but not that good or it was good but not merited enough to be nominated for fourteen Oscars. Rotten Tomatoes and other online reviews of La La Land showed an increase in less favorable reviews after the Golden Globes Awards. A Google News search of “Is La La Land Worth The Hype” returned more than 100 individual articles, forums, videos, and reviews debating this question. Saturday Night Live aired a skit about a man (host Aziz Ansari) taken into police custody and interrogated because he thought the movie was decent … but also boring. So how did La La Land become such a hotly debated movie in the entertainment industry?
It’s promo posters set up the hype from the start as the posters (displayed below) are filled with five-star reviews and colorful and positive adjectives and phrases such as “soaring and gorgeous,” “has the potential to make lovers of us all,” and “achingly romantic…A spellbinding masterpiece.” A movie poster covered with positive reviews screams, “please come see this movie. It’s a good movie! Look at how many critics say that it’s a good movie!” La La Land’s promotion strategy relied on high praise from top critics, (the exact opposite of word of mouth marketing). Although it’s hard to pinpoint when the narrative changed from “Oh, you must see La La Land to “Well, La La Land wasn’t that great,” it seems that as more people see the movie — as it has expanded from five theaters on Dec. 9 to a high of 1,865 theaters last weekend — public opinion is tilting toward the latter. The Ms. Print survey backs up this claim: as more people saw the movie more favorable reviews declined because out of the 55% of people 73% of people watched La La Land after the Oscar nominations and accordingly gave the film an average 3.5 star review rather than the group who had seen the film before the nominations and gave it an average 4.5 star review
Two movie posters for La La Land released for the press by Lionsgate Films for promotion and marketing.
The Portrayal of Jazz and the White Savior Complex
One factor leading to a moderating of the initial positive response is an increasing amount of discussion on racial aspects of Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian. Sebastian has been called a “white savior” character by critics including Wired, Vulture, New York Magazine, and MTV News, for his quest (and eventual success) to save the traditionally black musical genre from extinction, seemingly the only person who could accomplish the goal. Vulture’s article titled “La La Land Is Clueless About What’s Actually Happening in Jazz”, written by Seve Chambers, sums up La La Land’s “jazz issue” as “what should be a homage to jazz turns out to have narrow vision of the genre, aiming to draw hard boundaries around what it should and shouldn’t be — a stance that’s out of step with what the jazz scene actually looks like today.”
Furthermore, Gossling’s character, Sebastian, has been criticized for his “whitesplaining” of jazz, a genre that started in the black community. Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend, a record producer and songwriter pointed out in a series of tweets that La La Land’s fatal flaw is that it “whitesplains” (to explain or comment on something in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner, from the perspective of the group one, identifies with) jazz. Batmanglij also points out the lack of diversity in the film. La La Land uses jazz as a focal point, but it doesn’t pay homage to black culture or creators. One of Batmanglij’s tweets reads: “Black people invented jazz but now we need a white man to come save/preserve it? sorry, this narrative doesn’t work for me in 2016.”And sure, John Legend is in the film, a lone Black character. But he’s not really there as a jazz expert, Batmanglij notes.
MTV’s “La La Land’s White Jazz Narrative” by Ira Madison III adds, “If you’re gonna make a film about an artist staying true to the roots of jazz against the odds and against modern reinventions of the genre (from white musicians like, say, Mayer Hawthorne), you’d think that artist would be black.”
The delayed reception of racial aspects in La La Land is direct a product of the overhype. As audiences begin to get over the initial amazement of seeing La La Land, a period of reflection and perspective comes into play. In this period of reflection and distance from initial reaction, audiences can see the faults in La La Land. While both La La Land and Matt Damon’s The Great Wall both have issues of portraying diversity (La La Land with having white people save Jazz and The Great Wall of white people saving ancient China), it was only La La Land that received delayed backlash due to its overinflated positive critical response. However, it seems that Marvel’s Doctor Strange received the opposite effect in terms of whitewashing backlash. Doctor Strange had received harsh backlash for casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, a Tibetan mystic who acts as a mentor to Strange. Since the majority of this backlash happened before Doctor Strange was released in theaters, audiences already knew of this fault. As a result, it seems as though critic reviews have ignored or at least minimalized the backlash of whitewashing in favor of actually liking the film.
A Movie Musical with Weak Music
Racial issues aside; one of the movie’s chief selling point — to the audience and awards voters alike — is its nostalgic revival of the “Old Hollywood” movie musical, yet its music is one of its weakest aspects. Even though La La Land had two songs (City of Stars and Audition) nominated for best original song for the Oscars, the Academy chose John Legend to perform these songs during the 2017 Academy Awards, causing an uproar among fans. Social media split between the arguments of “you should have let Stone and Gosling perform” and “We are lucky that they [Stone ad Gosling] are not performing live because if you heard them sing it live you wouldn’t consider either for best original song.” The Academy’s decision seems to side with the latter argument. Songs originally performed by Gosling and Stone, while great actors are truly trained singers, and their thin vocals are evident throughout the film.
Some have argued that The Academy did not allow Gosling and Stone to perform live because of their lack of experience instead of simply because they are just bad singers. Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” is also nominated for Best Original Song. The song was recorded by both Canadian superstar/singer-songwriter Alessia Cara and sixteen-year-old Hawaiian, Auli’i Cravalho, but Cravalho sings and voices Moana in the movie. If lack of experience were the determining factors, the Academy would designate Alessia Cara to sing the song at the Academy Awards. Instead, it was sung by Cravalho. In fact, Auli’i Cravalho is a freshman in high school living in Mililani, Hawaii and never even thought about auditioning because “”there were already so many great submissions over YouTube” according to an interview Cravalho had with Business Insider.
The Underdog Award Season Narrative
Many news outlets have agreed that La La Land’s own awards narrative and campaign feels undeserved. The sentiment that La La Land should be honored simply for being an original musical that Hollywood took a “risk” in creating has been repeated at award show podiums. During the Golden Globes, director Damien Chazelle accepted the award for Best Screenplay and thanked his producers for “not blanching at what must have seemed like an utterly insane proposition.” Later, when the producers accepted the award for Best Picture: Comedy or Musical, they called the idea of an original musical “an utter fantasy,” and thanked Lionsgate for “ignoring and dismissing all conventional wisdom” by financing the movie, describing the miraculousness of its birth with a reverence usually reserved for the Immaculate Conception is little more than awards-season mythologizing.” In fact, musicals have had a resurgence in Hollywood in recent years with examples such as NBC’s Hairspray Live and Peter Pan Live, Hamilton’s cult-like following across pop culture instead of being only popular in the theatre world, blockbuster movies that are adaptations of popular musicals such as Disney’s Into The Woods and Universal Picture’s Les Misérables.
Spin compares La La Land to Taylor Swift — it presents itself as an underdog when really, it’s very powerful and deserving of its awards. The La La Land narrative has revolved around the idea that no one wanted to make the movie because it was a musical, which is quite risky in Hollywood. However, many pointed out that musicals are actually a popular concept lately, on both TV and film. One could argue, that it may be the safest year in decades to release a movie musical. Even the risk-adverse execs who run network television were getting on board, with a bizarre arms race between Fox and NBC to produce the best (or most lovably sloppy) live revivals of classic musicals most children have never even heard of. Musicals are cool right now, as evidenced by the worldwide phenomenon of Hamilton, and the steady return of the musical format on television such as participation of pop stars: Jennifer Hudson on Broadway in The Color Purple, Carly Rae Jepsen and Ariana Grande on TV in Grease Live! and Hairspray Live, Chance the Rapper on a Hamilton Mixtape. Furthermore, the big screen version of Chicago a musical won Best Picture in 2003.
The Verge argues that “Almost every major Disney animated film is technically an original musical, and the studio’s recent output has been extremely popular and profitable: Moana, Frozen, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled. All these films featured works by major Broadway composers (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bobby Lopez, Randy Newman, Alan Menken) and made killings both at the box office and on iTunes. The Frozen soundtrack outsold Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled visual album.” In fact, Disney’s Moana, Frozen, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled all have nine-song and dance numbers whereas La La Land have only six. The argument that Disney animated princess movies are not musicals because they only have two or three musical numbers can be quickly invalidated.
Kelly Lawler of USA TODAY points out that “Chazelle wasn’t a risky filmmaker in which to invest, as he was just coming off an Oscar nomination for Whiplash. Gosling and Stone only add to the film’s credentials as two of Hollywood’s most bankable actors with a history of starring in projects together.” The casting of Hollywood superstars was a deliberate choice as Chazelle knew that he had to sacrifice true musical talent for big name actors and actress in order for the movie to make a profit. As mentioned in a previous point, Chazelle has paid the price for his casting decision as it is embarrassing that La La Land which is considered by some critics as the greatest musical of the decade to have its music be the weakest aspect of the movie.
Targeting the Holywood Audience
Benjamin Lee of The Guardian puts it bluntly saying, “to the golden age with extravagant set-pieces and a relative lack of cynicism. It’s also a film about films with Stone playing a struggling actor and many scenes set on a film lot and the Academy is known for their love of ‘self-referentialism’ (The Artist’s sweep was a Hollywood back slap).” However, it can be argued that Chazelle was clever or at least cunning to make La La Land a love letter to Hollywood because Hollywood loves nothing more than a movie about how magical Hollywood is and how great Los Angeles is. Its opening scene is a big song and dance number in LA traffic. If LA natives hated traffic before, you can be sure they love it now. La La Land’s tributes to LA seems extravagant to outsiders, especially for Portlanders, where the motto is “Keep Portland Weird” and residents constantly hate Californians for raising the price of real estate. Perhaps, if Portlandia received fourteen Emmy nominations, Portlanders would be worshiping the show as LA natives have done with La La Land.
La La Land’s weekly box office numbers as released by Box Office Mojo shed light on to it’s increasing amount of backlash. By the end of 2016 La La Land was only in 1696 theaters across the U.S. The weeks of January 6-12 and January 27-Febuary 3 were the top weeks that experienced an increased amount of theaters playing La La Land across the U.S. with an additional 765 theaters and additional 1,271 theaters respectively. These weeks correlate with La La Land’s success at award shows. The week of January 6-12 correlates with La La Land’s sweep at the Golden Globes where it won all seven nominations–a Golden Globes record for a single film. However, as the Wrap reports no more than 2/3 of Golden Globe viewers watched La La Land. The Wrap arrived at this estimate by dividing the number of ticket sales (calculated by the total domestic box office and the average price of a movie ticket) by viewership number. The week of January 27-Febuary 3 correlates with Oscar nominations announcement (January 24) where La La Land received fourteen nominations, tying it with Titanic and It’s All About Eve for most oscar nominations for a single film. As more people saw La La Land outside the Hollywood bubble of artists and critics, the more it received less favorable reviews. Box Office Mojo also reports that La La Land only has made $228,100,000 at the foreign box office as opposed to $141,384,261 at the domestic box office. It seems as though the many homages to the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals which were loved by American audiences did not transfer well internationally. This can be explained by the fact that outside America, the world does not keep up with Hollywood as obsessively as Americans do.
It’s quite ironic that La La Land’s downfall is that is too successful because it is truly a good movie. While it has clear problems of weak music, an underdeveloped plot, and a white savior complex regarding the history of Jazz, La La Land is a very great movie. Its numerous award nominations might open the door for a new era of movie musicals. Marc Platt, one of La La Land’s producers is now working on Mary Poppins Returns, reports to the Independent on La La Land’s accomplishments that, “Thankfully, as much as Hollywood is interested in brands, I think people are still looking for originality and freshness. Musicals can also be their own brand: They have an event status. I also think the ceiling on the audience is lifting. Music has a way of getting inside all of us and lifting us up.”
It’s Not Just La La Land
La La Land’s success narrative is becoming more prevalent all throughout in pop culture and the entertainment industry. The curse of hype leading to unfulfilled expectation has many other recent examples such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Harry Potter, and the Cursed Child, BBC’s Sherlock Season Four Finale, Hamilton: An American Musical. Read part 2 of this article: “The Problem With Hyping Entertainment”.
Update February 27th, 2017:
During the Oscars 2017 La La Land won six of its fourteen nominations for Best Director, Best Actress, Best Orignal Song and Musical Score, Best Cinematography, and Best Production Design. The most notable Oscar news regarding La La Land was the Best Picture snafu where La La Land had mistakenly announced that it won Best Picture instead of Moonlight. In light of Moonlight’s Best Picture win, A24 (the relatively new studio that produced Moonlight) said on Tuesday that it had booked Moonlight into at least 1,500 theaters in the United States for the coming weekend. Perhaps Moonlight will be the next film to repeat La La Land’s backlash narrative.