Since his premature death on Christmas Day, there’s been a 1988 Rolling Stone cover story on George Michael making the rounds. In it, Michael bemoans the lack of respect given to him as a pop craftsman, despite his status, then and now, as one of the form’s most brilliant auteurs:
“People have the perception that if all you write is pop music, as opposed to something that reveals a far deeper character, it's because that's all you can do. Not because it's all you choose to do, and not because it's the area you love.”
Only minutes before news of George Michael’s death broke, I’d been at the movie theater, watching Damien Chazelle’s new musical La La Land. On its fevered mission to #MakeMusicalsGreatAgain, La La Land has amassed an army of ardent defenders who applaud the rose-colored lenses through which it films the world, celebrating its nostalgic embrace of art forms that were once popular but are now, at least in Chazelle’s world, presumably unwanted.
Throughout its runtime, La La Land fires a number of jokes in the direction of pop music. Early on, Seb (Ryan Gosling), a “serious musician” who loves jazz with a vengeance, is reduced to playing keytar in an ’80s cover band, its members decked out in pastel and polyester. Mia (Emma Stone), amused by his situation, taunts him by requesting “I Ran,” the proverbial hit from “one-hit wonder” A Flock of Seagulls, off that perpetually underrated British new-wave group's stellar self-titled 1982 concept album. The sequence concludes with Mia mocking Seb by calling him “George Michael,” reducing a complicated and challenging pop icon to a punch line.
My other problems with La La Land are numerous—in particular, its uncomfortable racial narrative, which Ira Madison III wrote on wonderfully for MTV—but it is this cynical attitude toward pop music that I feel most comfortable assessing here. Despite its uncomfortable relationship with the form, La La Land actually includes a modern pop star, John Legend, as Keith, a former classmate of Seb’s who wants him on keyboard duty in a successful jazz-fusion combo called the Messengers. At their first practice, the band breaks into what seems like a standard jazz number, at least until a hip-hop backbeat from a MIDI controller interrupts Seb’s piano solo. Keith lectures Seb about how he needs to grow up and move on from his fetishized view of the genre’s past; jazz is all about innovation, right? Mia finally gets the chance to attend one of the Messengers’ sell-out shows later in the movie, and she’s horrified by what she sees: They play an ordinary if groovy neo-soul number, albeit with an absolutely unnecessary synth part, effortlessly layered on top by a bored-looking Seb. Pushed back by the teenybopping crowd, Mia recoils in shock; it’s clear that in Seb’s world—and Chazelle’s—there’s no greater shame for a jazz pianist than to hide behind a synthesizer.
Though I admit I’m already allergic to such condescension toward popular entertainment, Chazelle complicates his own views by drawing on the cinematic equivalent of pop music: the Hollywood musical. Much has been made of how Chazelle references the movie musical’s history, from Gene Kelly to Jacques Demy, but what he misses is that the Golden Age of the genre was the very incarnation of the Hollywood machine. Contrary to Chazelle’s thesis, and the views of many who adore his film, the supposed musical drought we now live in is due less to a public rejection of the genre than the industry’s inability to produce musicals on a large scale. After the failure of expensive pictures like Cleopatra and Camelot in the 1960s, studios were forced to downsize; the in-house artists, choreographers, and composers who made the production of musicals possible found themselves first on the chopping block. The resources simply don’t exist for a musical renaissance.
Besides, the true spirit of the Hollywood musical is still alive in movies like Magic Mike XXL, as well as Hindi films like the recent Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which had a decently wide American run.
What makes these films—and music by masters like George Michael—great is their willingness to approach new forms and ideas, instead of just cynically regurgitating the dreams of the past. In that aforementioned profile of Michael, what he communicated above all else was deep respect for the form in which he chose to work. La La Land, on the other hand, trades such careful contemplation for empty cynicism and flashy colors. Whether jazz or pop, spoken or sung, artists like George Michael demonstrate that a song's financial success—or the number of synths used to record it—is no indication of its seriousness. Rather, an affection for experimentation, an open-minded attitude, and an unwillingness to compromise are what make great works endure beyond the deaths of their makers.