“Everybody has an idea of what they think Los Angeles is, even if they’ve never been here. If you live in Los Angeles, you’re used to having your city explained to you…”
Moving from small-town Northern California, to Santa Barbara, to Paris, and, finally, to rest for a while in Los Angeles, I too had undergone a similar phenomenon. An ingénue in Los Angeles, unused to the sweltering nights of Echo Park or the inexplicable midday traffic or the quietly madding blocks of Alameda Street, I often sat in a grateful silence as people explained my new city to me.
My friends back home told me how shallow and superficial it was. They warned me not to get an eating disorder. My new boyfriend said it was the new creative epicenter—people moving away from overdone Brooklyn to settle in the nooks and crannies of East LA. My sister complained of the heat and the dirt. As my eyes widened and squinted alternately with shock and romance at their revelations, I thought of my own ideas about Los Angeles, largely informed by viewings of Double Indemnity and readings of Weetzie Bat.
I had seen my new city countless times flashing across an expansive silver screen, often times even masquerading as New York or Chicago, and to me the place gleamed darkly like a jewel. People who have never lived or even breathed in Los Angeles have an idea of what Los Angeles is. But I don’t know if they’re wrong. That’s the privilege of Los Angeles. It’s the privilege of a city that claims the home to Hollywood and Paramount and Warner Brothers and whose buildings have been reproduced countless times across countless screens all over the world —it’s everybody’s city. This is the basis upon which stardust dreams and Damien Chazelle’s La La Land—a musical film about two struggling entertainers working to make it big—are built.
La La Land, starring Ryan Gosling as Sebastian and Emma Stone as Mia, effectively captures the quaint desperation of ambition and stardom immediately in its opening scene—a dance number, of course. As a large ensemble waits in its sun-scorched cars on a clogged freeway on-ramp, dancing on top of their cars and singing about dreams of fame and success on another day in Los Angeles, “another day of sun,” there’s something admittedly dorky about one of the hippest cities in the world.
There is something incredibly earnest about a dream to make it big in Hollywood—an earnestness that Los Angeles never seems to get credit for. How better to finally illustrate this quality than with a musical? A nod back to the beginnings of film’s golden age; a perfect combination of authenticity and artifice to encapsulate a confusing city.
Seeing Los Angeles as its own backdrop in La La Land is about the only thing that’s jarring in the film. Like old musicals, there is not a tawdry scene or an uncouth word to be found. But seeing the trash on the streets outside of Mia’s home as she and her friends wander into a warm summer night of parties and dancing does give one pause. The garbage isn’t particularly noticeable. Nor does it give the film a gritty or realistic quality (let’s be honest, it has neither). Instead, it appears illuminated because it’s never been there before. No quiet garbage heaps appear in Singin’ in the Rain, the movie the director took as inspiration, as the characters dance across streets and park benches. In this way, La La Land adds an intimacy and vulnerability to both the city and the genre that wasn’t there before. But realism?
This is especially evident in the ease with which Mia and Sebastian traverse the city. Traffic aside—because, yes, traffic is boring and slow and you don’t want your film to be—it’s difficult seeing a modern, “bohemian” depiction of Los Angeles that does not once focus its lens on the poverty and homelessness that is prevalent in nearly every neighborhood, and certainly the neighborhoods the two protagonists frequent. After a miserable party, Mia walks alone late at night along a dark street and hears the longing sound of piano (Sebastian, doing his somewhat pretentious siren call from inside a nearby bar) in the distance. Other than a couple that passes her, she is entirely alone.
In 2015, Los Angeles government officials declared the city to be in a state of emergency with its homeless problem, with a homeless population up by twelve percent in two years and accounting for over half of the homeless population in the entire county. Streets like the one depicted in this scene in Los Angeles are rarely uninhabited. If one were to truly focus in on a contemporary Los Angeles urban landscape, Mia would certainly not be alone. But it’s not as pretty a scene.
La La Land does not restrict audiences to one physical side of Los Angeles and does not center around one monument or environment. You see a lot in La La Land. You see the inside of Griffith Park Observatory. You see the Pasadena bridges. You see the streets of downtown and the alleyways of Venice and the murals that loom unceremoniously but beautifully by the street, facing parking lots. No, you don’t get the hours of traffic one has to sit in to flit between these locations. You don’t get the groaning and grumbling of your friends or your significant other when you tell them you’re going to do anything outside of your neighborhood. You don’t get the fact that most people in Los Angeles haven’t been to any of the iconic, picturesque places. But they’re there. And they’re there for the taking, if you want them. That’s the beauty of LA.
Since La La Land’s release, the film has received a heavy dose of criticism. For example, as far as I know, there is no traditionalist jazz scene in Los Angeles that replicates the one depicted in the film. Still, I wouldn’t be shocked if there were. Los Angeles is too multi-faceted to fully comprehend, and for that reason, it’s easy for many people to lay a claim to it—even if their only understanding is through images on a screen. Other criticism has rightfully pointed out its frankly shocking lack of diversity, and the fact that for a film that bases some of its narrative around jazz, the only jazz lover in question is a sort of holier-than-thou white dude (Sebastian).
The film is not a realistic depiction of Los Angeles. It’s not even, probably, anyone’s actual experience of Los Angeles. An up-and-coming star’s life in Los Angeles will be different than the parking officer’s. An emergency room technician at LA County Hospital will have a different vision than the barista in Silver Lake. All of them are true. Even when Los Angeles plays itself, its portrayal falls short. It’s always a far too one-dimensional character.
There are not enough dimensions for a film to truly convey the meaning of Los Angeles, so vast it is in its miles of sprawl. Perhaps “realism” is unachievable—a moot point—when it comes to talking about artistic depictions of Los Angeles, a city that has defined itself in fantasy and glitter for over a century. Perhaps a depiction centering in downtown Los Angeles or Boyle Heights or Reseda would ring just as false as one centering entirely in Beverly Hills or West Hollywood.
But perhaps this isn’t really what La La Land aims to do. La La Land is first and foremost an ode—a nostalgia film looking back on a movie genre tried and true, a city that is just as grey as it is golden, a way of filmmaking that was not representative of the real stories it told. That’s the way of nostalgia—it gives everything a rosy glow. But is this a glow and escape that we really want at this junction in American art and culture? That has audiences divided.
That’s the way of nostalgia—it gives everything a rosy glow.
Despite my deepest suspicions of Los Angeles, I eventually made it my home. And then I moved. I watched La La Land alone in a room at the Violet Crown movie theater in Austin, Texas, where my husband and I had moved just a week before. La La Land is flawed and sweet, but to paraphrase the words of Spin’s Emily Yoshida, its escapist qualities may fade. Eventually, the real world of La La Land would open up to show a darker underbelly, one that is far more than just a little litter on the street and a poorly-attended one-woman show (as is the film’s climax and the lowest point of Mia’s career).
Eventually the nostalgia I feel as I sit in a dark theater and philosophize on my former home, of the millions of people milling about in wonder, confusion, despair, and euphoria, will lessen. Beauty fades. But movies like La La Land will continue to appear, to touch on the heartstrings of the young and old no matter how silly they are. And every time Los Angeles turns its camera inward onto itself, my heart will pang and my ill-conceived “ownership” of Los Angeles will once again be exposed. Los Angeles was never mine and it never will be. It belongs to anyone who owns a television or wanders into a matinee, lost and looking for a fantasy to call home. It’s no one’s city and it’s everyone’s city.
Nostalgia is a bitch.