I’m sure he’s a sweet guy, but my concerns over Leon Thomas’s Renegade Cut videos are also based around the content. I, for example, thought his solution for “fixing modern Pixar”, i.e. to “make more movies like WALL-E”, was over-simplifying the issue, especially since I’ve always considered that one of Pixar’s weaker offerings during their heyday. Conversely, and this is partly because of my own experience, I found his episode on Perfect Blue to be completely oblivious to the film’s problems. So that Leon’s voice is also grating to listen to is an additional quibble. But enough of that, it’s time for why I mentioned him in the first place:
Hrmmm… (Courtesy of Renegade Cut.)
I recognize that La La Land is a weird movie. It’s basically a modern musical that pays homage, successfully, to a dead genre. It’s also a vanity project for director Damien Chazelle, being a movie that combines jazz, a genre of music that he loves, with the musical, a genre of film that he admires, for the 21st Century. I also want to state that while I did really enjoy this movie, I admit that it’s not perfect. My goal isn’t to trash Leon for criticizing the film, that’s what Reddit and IMDb are for, but to provide a response to a rather misleading analysis of an admittedly-flawed movie.
Also, there’ll be spoilers.
Leon begins by saying that his intent isn’t to disrespect people who like La La Land. His conclusion betrays that, but it’s a nice sentiment. I find that people who dislike popular movies/books/shows/whatever will immediately attack the fans by calling them “sheep” or “ignorant”, so to hear that is a nice change of pace. It’s too bad that, like I said, it ends up contradicting his conclusion. Additionally, since Leon’s video is chopped up into three sections, it’s only fair that I respond in like fashion:
The Non-Musical Musical-Leon begins his piece with his most easily-understandable critique: Ryan Gosling’s singing voice. There’s been a recent trend in Hollywood to cast non-singers in singing roles to appeal to the masses. Leon uses two examples, Moana and Beauty and the Beast, to prove that. The former had Dwayne Johnson as Maui singing “You’re Welcome”, which he argues wasn’t sung well, but had enough charisma to work. Conversely, Emma Watson’s Belle wasn’t “an opera singer”, but she was lovely enough hat she, too, fit the role fine. I’m unsure why he didn’t include the late-Robin Williams in Aladdin, as he didn’t have a good singing voice either and both examples are Disney-related, but whatever. Neither of the aforementioned were great singers.
But then he goes on to match this with Ryan Gosling in La La Land, and I immediately winced. Firstly, as someone who can sing, Gosling’s voice isn’t really that bad. It’s not great, but it carries and has a pleasant, soothing tone. He’s definitely quiet, but bad? There’s subjectivity to singing, but bad he’s not.
Secondly, Sebastian being a “bad singer” is part of his character, let-alone the movie. Emma Stone isn’t a great singer either. Her voice isn’t as “bad” as Gosling, but it’s nothing to write home about. But that neither Gosling or Stone are great singers is why they were cast: because they’re meant to be the every-people in Hollywood. Believe it or not, a lot of actors and actresses in Hollywood are passable, be it acting, writing, directing, and yes, singing. We see them all the time, so making them the centre-stage is praise in a good way.
And thirdly, the alternatives Leon gives for Gosling also misses the point. Damien Chazelle didn’t choose Neil Patrick Harris, Robert Downey Jr. or Jeremy Renner for a reason: they’re too old. Neil Patrick Harris is 43 years old, well into his career and doesn’t fit the role of a “young, struggling artist”. Robert Downey Jr. is 52 years old, well into his career and doesn’t fit the role of a “young, struggling artist”. Jeremy Renner is 46 years old, well into his career and, you guessed it, doesn’t fit the role of a “young, struggling artist”. Ryan Gosling, despite not being new, is 36 years old, still early in his career (he only took off a few years ago in popularity), and fits the role of a “young, struggling artist” more easily.
Leon mentions that there aren’t a lot of noteworthy songs to keep the pace after the opening two numbers to help “drown out Gosling”, but I don’t think La La Land was intending to be an uppity musical constantly. It’s a modern movie with modern sensibilities, and while the “it’s jazz” argument might not be a good enough excuse, it’s not trying to be bombastic or overly-flashy. La La Land isn’t trying to be the next Singing in the Rain, or any of the musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but rather a simple homage. That needs to be factored into the critique of the film.
Finally, Leon ends this section with a complaint about “sound mixing problems”, using the pool sequence in “Someone in the the Crowd” to justify his complaint. For one, the splashing overlapping with the dancing and music is intentional. And two, I could hear the lyrics perfectly fine without Googling them. Because they’re audible, even if he thinks otherwise. If you want proof, I watched this movie in theatres in February, before I went to an ENT to have over a decade’s worth of wax removed from my right ear. If I could hear it fine, then there’s nothing wrong with the sound mixing.
The White Saviour of Jazz-This next section is trickier to really deconstruct, since it deals with the complicated issue of racist casting and character writing. I’ll say that for as much as Sebastian is a struggling artist who prides himself on pure jazz and refuses to pay his bills or “sell out”, I think that’s kind of the point. Sebastian’s supposed to be stuck-up and overly-proud, because it’s part of what makes him appealing. Is it racist to be a white saviour? I suppose. But that’s less to do with Gosling and more to do with Hollywood’s flawed casting system.
See, Hollywood’s afraid of taking risks. Because almost 2/3 of the US is white, Hollywood wants to cater to that. It nets them the most money, so why not? It’s wrong, and it leads to instances like the tone deaf controversy of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, but it’s a long-time bias built-in to the system of Hollywood. Much like being queer or a woman, if you’re not white in Hollywood, your odds of getting anywhere are, sadly, more limited.
And yes, this needs to be changed. But in the same breath, I also think art can function even with its problematic aspects. Because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so ignoring something like La La Land because it’s not “ideally cast” is ignorance. But then again, I’m an Ashkenazi Jewish male, so what do I know?
Going back to the film, I don’t agree that Keith is inherently a villain because he’s the “New Age Jazzist”. Despite the “framing” that Leon suggests, Keith’s a guy making a living by seeing jazz as an evolving art form. He sees life differently than Sebastian, and that Sebastian decides to play for him is him realizing that he needs the money for his relationship with Mia. The movie might portray it as “selling out”, and on some level it is, but it’s Sebastian also sucking up his pride because he’s starting to realize what really matters. It’s something he didn’t get in the beginning of the movie when he refused to pay rent.
I won’t delve into the whole “whitesplaining jazz” critique, because there’s some truth to it, but the infantilization complaint is unfair for two reasons: one, Mia displayed her ignorance by complaining that all jazz music was “elevator music” and, therefore, boring. I love classical music, but the classical pieces played in elevators are also pretty boring. And two, that Sebastian is somewhat condescending to Mia is part of why their relationship ends up failing. Because while champagne love seems sweet initially, once the bubbles dissipate you’re left wanting more.
Also, since it was so eloquently explained, let’s talk about that Christmas scene: I disagree. Damien Chazelle might have characters in his films that act snobbish about jazz, but it’s never portrayed positively (Andrew’s conversation at the dinner table in Whiplash was him being arrogant.) And for as much as the movie may not have delved into the head of the restaurant owner, at the same time the movie shows that the dinner guests are bored by the traditional tunes that Sebastian’s playing. Sebastian’s not be the greatest piano player, but he’s clearly above playing boring songs that no one likes. So when he breaks his promise, which the guests actually like, and gets fired, the movie makes it a sympathetic-yet-presumably-impulsive decision.
I’ll end this section by touching on Mia, since Leon briefly criticizes her by arguing that she has no characteristics outside of her passion to be a successful actress. I don’t agree: Mia’s stubborn, argumentative, insecure about her hopes and dreams and constantly feeling like she’s falling behind. This is all explicitly stated in-film. And as for why nothing is shown about her one-act play? It’s because it’s less important than digging into her character growth. If Birdman can get away with barely showing Riggan Thomson’s stage play, then why can’t La La Land?
Obnoxiousness Is Not Romantic-Leon makes a clever transition to this point through his ending statement on Sebastian in the last section. Sebastian, according to him, is a mansplaining, egotistical artist with a white saviour complex. This makes his relationship with Mia one of obnoxiousness and romanticism, the latter of which he argues is necessary to an extent in storytelling, but is over-played. Ignoring that I’ve already tackled my thoughts on Sebastian, I don’t think that him and Mia being in an over-romanticized relationship is accidental. The movie makes it abundantly clear that their relationship is flowery and somewhat toxic. You end up caring anyway, but their inevitable break-up is apparent right from when Sebastian “sells out” for money.
I want to point out an inherent critique that I think Leon should know: characters in storytelling need not have arcs, nor do they need to have arcs that progress them in a positive direction. I say this because he doesn't. Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, for example, doesn’t change. But even if he did, it’s not for the better. Having a negative character arc/no arc at all is harder to do right, but it’s not impossible.
Besides, I do think that Sebastian, and to a lesser-extent Mia, grow as characters. Sebastian learns how to become successful, but at the cost of giving up his ego and pursuing hard work. Mia learns how to become successful too, but only once she stops being so insecure. And both of them learn that true happiness and success means not always being with “your ideal other”, something the movie shows was for the best anyway.
There are several aspects to this point that really irk me. One of them is how Sebastian’s line to Mia about not caring what others think of her play is the director’s ham-fisted critique of La La Land’s detractors. Much like Princess Nausicaä in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind telling Prince Abel that the Pejites and the Tolmekkians are “exactly alike”, the line from La La Land wasn’t intended to be that way. It was a reminder that your biggest critic is yourself, and that you only have control of your own actions at the end of the day. Given how many people have told me that I’d never make it anywhere, that hit me hard.
Which is all-the-more reason why Leon’s assumption that Sebastian and Mia think they’re the only ones that matter was so odd. Ignoring that this is a movie, and that they’re the protagonists of the story, I don’t think they’re being egotistical at all. They’re being young and careless, and the film spends two hours giving them a heaping dose of reality. Is it over-sentimental? Perhaps, particularly during Mia’s audition solo. But it’s like Leon said: movies need a little romanticism.
The final point I want to tackle is the “praise” that people give this movie for “subverting” traditional movie romances by having Mia and Sebastian not be together in the end. Ignoring that this is a romance film cliché, not a musical film cliché, I don’t think that the movie was trying to subvert anything. It was paying homage to the film musicals of old, while updating the dated aspects to fit a 21st Century mold. Subversion implies that the movie had something clever to say about this, and given how it’s slowly becoming commonplace anyway, it’s not so much clever as it is normal and expected.
The Verdict-Leon ends this analysis with a rather obnoxious proposition, hence my claim in the opening: according to him, critics were so starved to see a good musical that they over-praised this one, which he claims wasn’t all that good, as a masterpiece. I hate this remark, because it reeks of laziness and insensitivity. Movie reviews aren’t a science, they’re subjective. Critics are allowed to disagree with the masses, and vice-versa. This shouldn’t be some kind of pissing match, nor should it be a game of “critics are stupid”. And yet, I see this so often that I’m sick and tired of letting it slide.
I’m not a big fan Mad Max: Fury Road, for example. I think it’s a shallowly-written, plodding film with two-dimensional characters and ideas that go nowhere. And yet, people loved it. But while I was quick to explain why I’m not a fan, I never once insulted critics. Because that’s petty. The second you resort to that behaviour, I immediately disregard what you have to say.
Critiques like that also mislead your audience into thinking that you’re the be-all-end-all of the debate on quality. I can’t find it anymore, but there was a comment from someone who’d never seen the film, yet was glad they hadn’t based on Leon’s review. That’s some CinemaSins nonsense right there, taking misleading critiques as fact and missing out on forming your own opinion. You don’t have to agree with the praise, but you shouldn’t be so quick to write it off either.
By the way, I liked La La Land a lot, but next to its musical numbers and ending montage it didn’t blow me away. It was shallowly written on a surface level, the general story was predictable and it didn’t do much to innovate a genre it clearly loved. But that’s beside the point, because while La La Land might not be deep, it did one element really well: it showed the millennial struggle as being one of the everyman trying to survive. And yeah, “movie stars” and all that jazz. But that struggle was still present with Sebastian and Mia’s character-arcs.
I don’t want people to think that Leon Thomas’s analysis is automatically trash. He’s entitled to think what he wants, something he’s clearly acknowledged in his disclaimer. But the sword is double-edged, and with that comes a transparency for rebuke or response. Bottom line: I’m unimpressed with this analysis.