If the Golden Globe awards are anything to go by, La La Land is the greatest motion picture ever made. Or something like that.
If we go by the most recent box office totals, it isn't half bad, either—but the Oscars haven't weighed in yet and that verdict could do a lot to boost the bottom line even further.
But if we look at La La Land semiotically, a different picture emerges, revealing not its quality or ultimate profitability, but rather what it says about America today. Not surprisingly, that turns out to be a rather mixed message.
Let's start at the beginning, which, in a semiotic analysis, usually begins with a determination of the immediate system, or context, in which our topic appears. In this case, that system is the history of Hollywood musicals, romantic drama division (the studio calls it a "comedy-drama," but the "comedy" part of the categorization has been questioned). This simple act of situating La La Land within its most immediate context takes us right to our first signification, because the era of the Hollywood musical (evoking any number of cinema classics, with Singing in the Rain taking honors as the most cited of La La Land's predecessors) has long since passed, and so the appearance of a musical now marks a difference. And that difference means something.
I see a number of significations here. The first might be called the "when the going gets tough, America goes for uplifting distractions" precept. Especially prominent during the Great Depression (which, not coincidentally, coincided with the true Golden Age of Hollywood), feel-good movies have always provided a distraction from the slings and arrows of outrageous reality, and nothing can beat a musical—especially a romantic musical—for making people feel good. So it should come as no surprise, as we wallow in the wake of a Great Recession from which only a small portion of America has really emerged, that Hollywood gave the green light to a nostalgic film like La La Land, and that audiences, if not quite in blockbuster numbers, have been lining up to see it.
But if audience nostalgia accounts for a good deal of La La Land's success, there is also the enthusiasm emanating from the Hollywood community itself to consider. The nostalgia of a movie like La La Land is very much an insider's emotion, an evocation of memories of the sort that those fortunate few who really did emerge from the madding crowd to reach the heights of the gaudiest version of the American dream can experience as their own. For them (especially for La La Land star Emma Stone) the movie is scarcely fiction at all. No wonder Hollywood loves it.
A less sunny side to Hollywood's self-celebration in La La Land, however, can be found in the film's use of jazz, a multicultural art form that (as a number of critics have noted) La La Land effectively whitewashes. There is something of a Mad Men effect going on here, as if part of the film's nostalgia is for the days when the racial politics of filmmaking were more easily swept under the red carpet and white actors could be smoothly inserted into what many regard as black roles. After all, The Jazz Singer is also part of La La Land's genealogy.
Finally, to discover what may be the most profound signification of La La Land, we need to return to the fact that ordinary people are watching it and giving it high marks on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb in an era when much darker movies (e.g., anything with Batman in it, but don't forget Deadpool) are really breaking the box office. Sure, a lot of this popularity is probably coming from viewers who are profoundly grateful for a movie that isn't some sort of superhero or sci-fi fantasy, but the fact remains that La La Land—for all of the much- ballyhooed "realism" entailed by its protagonists' less-than-professional dance chops—is a fantasy too for the vast majority of its viewers. Which is to say that its starry-eyed "message" about "pursuing your dreams" is completely out of touch with the reality faced by Americans today.
Because (you knew I'd get to Donald Trump eventually, didn't you?) one of the indelible takeaways of the 2016 presidential election is that a substantial number of Americans have begun to lose faith in that American exceptionalist belief that America is the place where dreams do come true, where everything does turn out the way you want it to in the end if you only show enough grit and determination. This essential optimism—what Barbara Ehrenreich calls American "bright-sidedness" (look for her in the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the USA on just this topic)—is badly fraying at the edges as the American dream falls further and further out of reach for most of us non-one-percenters. And while this new reality is not something that the Hollywood dream machine wants to reveal in the nation's movie theaters, it certainly is showing up at the polls.
Which is to say that La La Land's success is a reflection of an America that is passing. Its follow-your-dreams faith may have worked for Damien Chazelle, but the odds aren't favorable for the rest of us. Guns N' Roses was certainly closer to the mark for those who do succeed in Hollywood with "Welcome to the Jungle," but the words of a Raymond Carver character (whose family has lost everything) from a short story called "The Bridle" are probably a lot more relevant for much of the rest of America: "Dreams," she says, "are what you wake up from."