WashU Expert: Performance, race and ‘La La Land’

Todd Decker critiques Oscar favorite

It is an iconic moment from the golden age of Hollywood musicals. In “Royal Wedding” (1951), a smitten Fred Astaire proclaims his love while dancing across walls and ceiling.

A similar gravity-defying moment occurs in “La La Land,” the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards. As Seb and Mia, played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, rise into the air, buoyed by their blooming love.

Yet as the actors float skyward, director Damien Chazelle “cuts to a long shot of some other, more accomplished couple twirling in silhouette in space,” writes Todd Decker, chair of music in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, in his recent essay “Musical Fakery in ‘La La Land.’”

“The problem with ‘La La Land’’s defiance of gravity stems from its stars: They cannot sing and dance. … The bodies spinning obviously don’t belong to Gosling and Stone,” Decker observes. The actors “might as well be watching from below with the film’s audience.

“Cinematic fakery foreign to the musical genre sits at the heart of ‘La La Land,’ marring the moment the lovers fall for each other by taking to the air. And that fakery also fatally undermines Chazelle’s ideas about jazz and whiteness.”

Decker focuses on the jazz divergence between the male leads of today and yesteryear.

“Gosling and Astaire’s different skills matter because ‘La La Land’ builds (Gosling’s) character on endless spoken riffs about jazz,” Decker continues. “Seb wants to ‘defend’ and ‘save’ jazz, a tired argument reaching back to ’30s films like ‘Blues in the Night,’ also about a white musician wanting to save the music.

“Astaire, too, loved jazz,” adds Decker, the author of “Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz” (2011). Yet “Astaire forged his connection to jazz without talking about it. He cut lines from scripts that had him pontificate about the music. And when he could … he brought African-American musicians onto his civil rights-era television shows to play the music that made him dance — at a time when blacks and whites doing anything together on television was potentially controversial.

“It matters that Astaire and Gosling are white men, alike privileged figures in Hollywood whatever the era. Astaire’s career as a dancing leading man begins with his whiteness. No black dancer stood a similar chance. And Fred and Seb’s relation to jazz will always be historically complicated. Astaire knew this. Gosling as Seb, going through the motions of Chazelle’s jazz fantasy, doesn’t get it.”

The 2017 Academy Awards will air on ABC beginning at 6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26. To read Decker’s full essay, visit cenhum.artsci.wustl.edu.

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