• YEAR: 2016
  • DIRECTOR: Damien Chazelle
  • KEY ACTORS: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
  • IMDB SCORE: 8.0

✔️ This is very rewatchable, and I get something new from it each time.
✔️ The cast are incredibly fuckable. When are either of them ever not?
✔️ And it did inspire fantasies. Who doesn’t want to dance with a beautiful partner above the LA sunset?
✔️ Technically it passes the Bechdel Test but it’s a close call. Are characters truly ‘named’ if they’re only named in the credits? Is one conversation really enough?
❌ There isn’t really any sex in the movie to work out sex positivity but the gender politics haven’t really aged well so I can’t give it a mark!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (free with subscription), YouTube (from £2.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

This is the fourth ‘Movie Star’ post that I’ve written and, despite how much I wanted to write about this actor, it is the first one where I’ve questioned whether the object of my study is actually a true Movie Star, according to my arbitrary definition. As much as he is beautiful and famous and has been in Barbie, is Ryan Gosling actually too much of an Actor to be considered a Movie Star?

A black and white photo of Ryan Gosling looking suarve

To me, and inspired somewhat by an ongoing discussion on The Big Picture podcast, a Movie Star’s success comes more from their charisma and fame than from their acting ability. You go and see a Tom Cruise movie to see Tom Cruise (running) whether or not you know much else about the quality of the film; Julia Roberts was celebrated for being able to ‘open a movie’ early in her career purely for being her, a key moment in her Movie Stardom. The whole purpose of the Movie Star is to be big and glitzy and glamorous and make blockbusters. Movie Stars in indie flicks or small budget movies are rarer and become a specific talking point, not just something that actors do. Movie Stars don’t tend to be obsessively private and actively avoid the spotlight because that spotlight, that fame, is their whole purpose. And this is whether or not they actually enjoy it – Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone truly became Movie Stars when they were in the Amazing Spider-Man franchise and were famously dating in 2014, ticking two Movie Star requirements, and courted the paparazzi by covering their faces with signs pointing to charities or good causes. A good use of their platform or a gimmick that ensured that they were photographed and talked about? Depends on your level of cynicism…

So to the conundrum of Ryan Gosling: on one hand, as I discussed in Barbie, he’s the hot guy from the Hey Girl memes and he’s Noah from The Notebook and he’s fucking Ken! He has movie star good looks, is instantly recognisable, and hasn’t entirely avoided franchises, starring in Blade Runner 2049. Adding to his Movie Star credentials, his career started in The Mickey Mouse Club, alongside Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and was clearly star material before then, as this famous video of him dancing in 1992 demonstrates. And, another key feature of Movie Stardom, having seen 2022’s The Gray Man, I can only assume that he is also not entirely adverse to making a rubbish action film for the paycheck.

But some of his greatest movies are independent films and he doesn’t shy away from complex or taboo subjects. He made Lars and the Real Girl, a wonderful and gentle film about a man and his sex-doll girlfriend; he was Oscar nominated for Half Nelson, a movie about a teacher with a drug habit. Gosling has made movies that underperformed at the box office but are now considered cult classics, like 2016’s The Nice Guys, or were critically acclaimed but would never be described as blockbusters, like 2011’s Drive. He’s twice been Oscar-nominated and has worked with some of the greatest directors of the 21st century – Denis Villeneuve, Greta Gerwig and, of course, Damien Chazelle – but none of these bigger movies revolved around him alone. Blade Runner 2049 was a sequel and Harrison Ford project; Barbie was about, well, Barbie; and La La Land was a joint effort between him and Stone. Can he really open a movie in the same way as some of these other Movie Stars?

But I’d argue that all this makes Gosling a more fascinating and more modern Movie Star. He is a star, just not one who follows the same mould as the classical movie stars of the 80s and 90s. Gosling’s film choices don’t follow a pattern and he hasn’t been typecast, but he has been successful. He has made films ranging from ultimate romances like The Notebook and Crazy Stupid Love to satires like The Big Short and dramas like First Man. Gosling may not share much of his private life – I don’t follow celebrity culture religiously but I didn’t know he was in a relationship with Eva Mendes until long after both their children had been born – but he is absolutely incredible on a press tour, proving that he can be a Movie Star as and when he wants to be. Which feels like the best and healthiest way to do it!

So on to La La Land.

What a movie! And one with a really interesting legacy. The fact that it infamously didn’t win the Oscar for Best Picture when Warren Beatty accidentally announced it instead of Moonlight is somehow the perfect way for this film to be remembered; for almost having it all and yet ending up in controversy.

An image from La La Land of Stone and Gosling dancing

La La Land is a musical romance about aspiring actress Mia (Stone) and wannabe jazz musician Sebastian (Gosling) who have a few meet-cutes around LA, including one where they walk back from a party through the sunset, dancing and singing together until it is clear that they are falling in love. Sadly, theirs wasn’t a love that was made to last. Sebastian’s music career takes off when he joins a jazz fusion band but this means that he abandons his long-held dream of owning his own jazz club. Meanwhile, after a series of depressing and disappointing auditions, Mia decides to write her own one-woman show as a final attempt to make it as an actress. It doesn’t go well as so few people show up. Even Sebastian wasn’t there, choosing to attend a photo shoot for his band instead. causing them to break up. Among the few people that here, however, was a casting director who was impressed and books her for an audition, making her a superstar. Flash forward 5 years and Mia is married to a tall dark handsome man with a small cute child, and they wander into a jazz club on an evening out. It turns out that it’s owned by Sebastian, having finally achieved his dream, and the movie ends with an extraordinary sequence where Mia imagines what her life could have been like if she’d stayed with Sebastian…and it’s exactly the same, except Sebastian takes the place of her current tall dark handsome husband and he doesn’t get his jazz club.

I’ve written before about the ‘Oscar race,’ the campaign for votes that could be thought of as more important than the actual movie they are campaigning about, and La La Land is such a fascinating example of how a movie can publicly rise and fall during this season without actually doing anything new. The excitement in the build up to its release – Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling together again! And there’s dancing!! – and the gushing opening reviews meant that no one was surprised when it received 14 Oscar nominations, but the shine was quickly lost as more and more critics saw La La Land and more and more minority groups chose to speak up and criticise it.

To use the Guardian as an example, Mark Kermode published a 5 star review in January 2017, praising its ‘timeless charm and a brave sense of adventure. Bravo!’ but, by February 2017, they published an article about the backlash against the film, both politically and critically: ‘When the story of the year in cinema is written, we may say that La La Land peaked too early, or that it was the right film at the wrong time, or that its other, less political criticisms – the story is a little thin, the characters don’t particularly sing or dance very well, and it may be just too self-indulgent for its own good – were exposed after its shine finally wore off.

An image from La La Land of Stone and Gosling embracing and looking really happy

But I love this movie. I don’t generally like musicals but this is one of the few that makes me reconsider my dislike. I wonder if it’s exactly because neither Emma Stone or Ryan Gosling can really sing so it isn’t full of soaring power ballads and feels more understated and, well, realistic. Sure, the opening dance number on the highway is full on Jermone Robbins Hollywood musical choreography, but I don’t think of that when I remember La La Land. I think of the beautiful and croaky ‘City of Stars’ where you can hear Stone laughing as she sings. I think of their simple tap dancing in the sunset, rarely touching but building the tension between them as they match each other’s steps and movements. I think of the Hollywood glamour that is everywhere except in their relationship, which both emphasises how fake that glamour can be and why they would yearn for it at the expense of their shared reality.

So it’s no surprise that this movie absolutely breaks my heart. It’s the sort of heartbreak that cuts the deepest because there’s nothing to forgive, nothing to fix or get over so they can stay together. It’s done. Love just isn’t enough. Mia and Sebastian were never going to make it. Once the cracks had appeared, once it became clear that their lives were travelling in different directions, there was no coming back no matter how much they loved each other and how perfect they were for each other.

It’s why the dream sequence – the break with reality – is so affecting because the only change from what actually happened was the trigger event that made them realise how much their lives were diverging. In the dream, Sebastian didn’t choose his own career and instead came to Mia’s show, and so they stayed together. 

An image from the dream sequence of Gosling and Stone dancing in a magical watery starry landscape

Except, of course, that Sebastian didn’t get his jazz club in this dream. His ‘sacrifice’ in attending the show rather than the photoshoot for his band meant that he got the girl but didn’t get his own dream. I didn’t notice this detail when I first saw the film, so caught up was I in the emotion of the what-could-have-beens, but it has become surprisingly important in the years since 2017 as it is the hook on which to hang the responses to claims that La La Land is an unfeminist movie.

I was genuinely astonished by how many articles were written in 2017 arguing for and against La La Land’s feminist credentials. But then I remembered that it was released in an entirely different world from the one we live in now. Premiering at the Venice Film Festival in August 2016, the idea of a Trump presidency was still thought to be an unlikely joke, #MeToo was a year away, and mainstream feminism was fighting different battles from those we are fighting today. Before the overturning of Roe v Wade, before the ongoing and persistent transphobic rhetoric overtook the media, before rights we had considered inviolable started being rolled back or threatened, we had the time and headspace to have nuanced discussions about what really counts as a feminist ending: ‘While it might seem odd that a movie as guileless and nostalgic as La La Land…has provoked such ire, this is the pop cultural world we live in. Every piece of art is now politicised and parsed for its problematic elements. These complaints may take some of the joy out of a film intended only to entertain, but they also reveal vital perspectives that have been hidden for too long from our white-male dominated discourse.’ God, I miss 2017. Looking back, it feels then that we were able to have discussions about how to make our world better and less cis white man centred, whereas now we’re literally trying to survive.

Mia’s success in both reality and fantasy compared to Sebastian’s does make La La Land seem like a ‘fully feminist fantasy,’ to quote a pro-feminist article in Vogue. Sadly, it is still unusual that the female protagonist’s success is the focus of a movie, particularly when it is to the detriment of her male co-star. In a film about dreamers, there was only room for one person to achieve their dream and it is refreshing that it is Mia: ‘Sebastian doesn’t get the club, but he does get the girl. Mia, on the other hand, gets everything she wanted.’ That is, of course, assuming that having a relationship is his dream.

Because having ‘everything she wanted’ could easily be rewritten as ‘having it all,’ and suddenly it’s looking very different. Sure, Mia gets her acting career and superstardom but she also gets a handsome husband and cute child. In fact, the cute child is present in both reality and fantasy so critical is it to the idea of Mia’s success. Whether consciously or unconsciously, La La Land has complied with a whole host of gender stereotypes that work to undermine that feminist fantasy of Mia’s success. Comparatively, in the final scene, we see that Sebastian has got his jazz club but we are told absolutely nothing about the rest of his life. Neither of them had ever mentioned their desire to have children before but, while this is used as a measure of Mia’s success, it is simply not thought to be relevant to our opinion of Sebastian. Does he have a wife or girlfriend? Does he have or even want children? Who knows, and apparently who cares. As Gila Lyon wrote for Refinery 29, ‘Come on, Hollywood — you were so close — a strong female protagonist who doesn’t have to strip naked, who has talent, professional dreams, and creative passion, who stands up for herself. Why, in the end, is her story a love story about a man, and his story a love story about jazz?

Unfortunately, the fact that La La Land is a love story about jazz also ends up as a mark against it: ‘it’s impossible to separate jazz from black history, and it’s downright foolish to do so in a film by, for and largely about white people.’ Damien Chazelle clearly has his own love affair with jazz – his previous movie, Whiplash, is also about a jazz musician – but the jazz that he prefers, the style with which he promotes it, has irritated jazz musicians and doesn’t fit with the reality of jazz in the twenty-first century.

An image from La La Land of John Legend approaching Gosling and Stone in a jazz club

For a start, jazz isn’t a dying art and absolutely does not need to be saved by a white guy! The position that Sebastian has chosen for himself as someone preserving ‘pure jazz’ reeks of white saviour superiority and it is unfortunate, to put it mildly, that this sense of superiority is placed in opposition to the progressive jazz fusion of John Legend, one of the few speaking roles played by a person of colour. Sebastian’s ‘jazz pedantry’ isn’t even current: ‘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.

And, as much as I might like him, and as much as he has extraordinary forearms and looks stunning in a shirt and tie with the sleeves rolled up, I’m beginning to fear that Sebastian is a bit of a twat. He is your archetypal mansplainer and genuinely believes that he knows better than everyone else, even regarding their own taste! Not liking jazz, as Mia claims not to, is a cliche in itself – I believe there is a Sex and the City episode about exactly that – but Sebastian’s response to take Mia to so many jazz shows that she has no choice but to eventually agree with him is such toxic male behaviour. (Dare I say it, he’s acting like one of the Kens in Barbie!) It’s not even unique toxic male behaviour; it’s a trope! : ‘Certain self-important people—guys, often—won’t like you if you don’t like jazz, and you can’t like jazz if you don’t know jazz, and you can’t know jazz if you haven’t heard it all, every last album by every last performer, and none of it makes sense.’ Urgh…

An image from La La Land of Gosling leaning on a piano

In fact, the more I think about it, the more problematic Sebastian becomes. Not just a jazz pedant, he’s a snob! He makes it quite clear that the musical gigs he takes to earn money are beneath him – gigs that are clearly very popular and successful. And on top of that, repeatedly ignoring his bosses requests is a perfectly legitimate reason to be fired, shoulder barging strangers because you’re in a bad mood is sociopathic, honking your car horn outside someone’s house because you’re too lazy to come to the door is just rude, and, frankly, missing your girlfriend’s one night only showcase because you’ve got the date of your work commitment wrong is unforgivable. Oh damn, I don’t think even Sebastian’s arms can save him now…

I don’t know that Chazelle did this on purpose. I don’t think he’s trying to say something clever about dreams and music and Hollywood. He has said that he wanted ‘to make a movie that would embrace the magic of musicals but root it in the rhythms and texture of real life,’ and while I think he’s been very successful, I’m not convinced that it’s the exact vision of real life that he intended – where his hero is revealed to be a twat when the honeymoon period of their relationship is over!

Gosling and Stone gazing adoringly at each other

But maybe this is a key piece of evidence in favour of La La Land being a feminist movie! Sebastian may end up with his jazz club (incidentally, named as per Mia’s suggestion rather than his weird jazz in-joke) but he is ultimately alone. Maybe that dream sequence isn’t Mia’s fantasy at all but Sebastian’s – one where he takes his head out of his arse, realises what a great thing he has going on with Mia and what a snob he’s being about jazz, and gets to live a life where they can be happy together.

The men in Mia’s dreams are interchangeable – her success is her career – but Sebastian’s rely on her. Maybe this is a fully feminist fantasy after all…

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NEXT TIME… The Addams Family Values

Copyright All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.