I have not seen LA LA Land, but I want to tell a story about it, and the point of this story is to raise a couple of interesting points about the power of film reviews. The film was first screened in august of 2016, making its way around a heap of high profile film festivals for the rest of the year, before general release over the holidays. It was well received, seriously well received. Of the 80 or so reviews posted to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes during this period a grand total of four give the film a negative score. Here we are using, and acknowledge the issues with, the blunt force metric of Rotten Tomatoes own ‘fresh/rotten’ measure.
The positive reactions to the film continued when it hit the cinemas for general release. The number of reviews increases significantly at this point (to over 300). Alongside this increase, perhaps inevitably, we also see an increase in less than positive reviews.
I have put all the reviews listed on Rotten Tomatoes into a graph. It simply marks a positive review as a +1, and a negative review as a -1. You can see that the graph is clearly top heavy, those negative reviews on the bottom are barely making a dent. What is interesting though is the box I have marked in red. Aside from that one outlier later in February, the negative reviews seem to dry up.
So what is going on? It’s clear that people are still reviewing the film, the general level of reviews is certainly reduced in comparison to the amount published right after the film is released, but it has not dried up to nothing. To illustrate what I think might be going on I have replicated the same graph, but on this copy I have stood a little Oscar right on the date when the Oscars nominations were announced.
Look at him there, guarding that square of nothing but positive reviews. So did the Oscars make the film untouchable? As bastions of taste, even at their most candid I cannot imagine a reviewer admitting to being influenced by something as ephemeral as an Oscar nomination. But 14? Maybe that is different. There perhaps something about the Oscars, as awards that a nominated within the industry, that marks them as especially noteworthy.
So what about that brave soul who managed to swim against the tidal wave of positivity and publish a negative review all the way out in late February? Well Cole Smitheys review is actually not alone. His review is part of a wider discourse about the film that begins to develop in February that did not make it on to Rotten Tomatoes because none of it was ostensibly reviewing the film. Smithley just does not think the film is that good, but he is joined by other dissenting voices that question the film in some potentially far more important ways, asking if it demonstrates questionable attitudes to race and gender, and wondering about the disingenuous lack of gay characters.
Alongside a long discussion about whether the film does Jazz any favours, a guardian article titled ‘The La La Land Backlash’ sums up these other issues, then notes:
“… it’s hard to imagine any of these complaints getting much traction if La La Land were not such an enormous hit. Had it been met with indifference by critics and audiences, my hunch is that nobody would care so much about its racial or gender politics.” – Noah Gittell
Akin to asking, does anyone care, if no one notices, which, given the amount of films with questionable attitudes to almost anything you can think of that are released every year (The Bechdel test isn’t going away anytime soon, for example) seems like it might well be a truism here. However, we need to look at what we mean by ‘enormous hit’ – because with La La land we are probably not talking about outright box office success. The film had an epic opening weekend, probably a result of all that film festival hype and those endless positive reviews. But depending which absolute measure you look at, there are still 18 or so films sitting above La La Land in terms of box office takings over the past year. Beyond this, even with all of those amazing reviews, with an undoubtedly high 93% (critics) rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it is not some sort of mega success outlier in the top twenty. This means that La La Lands ‘enormous hit’ status is discursive, people talk about it being an enormous hit, whilst it is in real terms, or as real terms as something like this can ever be measured, probably just a high performing big budget movie.
So what does this mean for film goers, or, perhaps more importantly, reviewers. There is evidence to suggest a discursive echo chamber has formed around the film here. A film perceived as a successful, enormous hit will be discussed as such, a self-fulfilling prophecy that serves to push the film deep into the public eye. In the case of La La Land, perhaps a little too deep – because up that close its far easier to see the inconsistencies between what is being said about the film and what one’s own reality of experiencing it is. So did positive reviews kill La La land? I guess we’ll find out on Oscars day.