Let me start by talking about why I was glad that La La Land didn’t win Best Picture. I never did write anything about it back when it was released late last year because at that point everyone had an opinion on the film, where discussions disintegrated into battle cries about mansplaining and heteronormative white masculinity run amok. I wasn’t insulted by La La Land, in fact I even (kinda) admired it. But what I was never able to reconcile was how this film that models itself after musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Singin’ in the Rain wasn’t able to utilize its genre to express any of the anxieties of its characters. La La Land is a musical about the artistic struggles of an actor and musician yet doesn’t actually have a song or dance number about those struggles, instead opting to utilize its genre to glean over their concerns. There’s no sense of artistic struggle or a search for integrity. The characters in La La Land yearn for fame and get it. What’s most disingenuous of all is that the filmmakers maintain that their private sacrifices (giving up a relationship) for professional success somehow insures their moral rectitude – in sacrificing love, actor and musician can finally achieve their dreams, as if to suggest the two are mutually exclusive.
I bring up La La Land because Zoe Lister-Jones’ Band Aid possesses an eerily similar disinterest in exploring real suffering. The film centers on Anna and Ben (Zoe Lister-Jones and Adam Pally), a married couple that form a band in response to their crumbling marriage. The film opens on a series of scenes that barely inform one another, with its editing patterns so tonally jagged and imprecise, as it shifts from the couple bickering about washing dishes to Ben’s conversation with his impatient mother to Anna and Ben in couple’s therapy to a birthday party for a friend’s child all within three to five minutes. Whether this device was intentional, as if to suggest the troubling status of Anna and Ben’s relationship, or not, the result is exceedingly clumsy.
The couple will write and perform songs about their marriage as they exhume their issues with one another in a peculiar form of therapy. It works, as they find themselves happier about confronting their problems together, relishing in the creative process that allows them to be honest with one another. They go on to recruit their next-door neighbor Dave (Fred Arminson, playing a recovering sex-addict who, while a welcome comedic presence, belongs in an entirely different movie) to play as drummer. The triad is successful, belting out some genuinely good tracks as they decide to take the show from their garage to an open mic.
So, in Band Aid, we have a film that actually utilizes its devices to explore grief, failure, and unhappiness as a therapeutic exercise. Why doesn’t it work? Part of it comes from the toothlessness of its insights, which seems to stem from its naïve and privileged white, liberal polemic. Every intriguing idea Band Aid offers is undercut by the film’s recurring sense of vanity. Let’s say that Anna and Ben aren’t exactly hurtin’ despite their professions (Anna as an Uber driver and Ben as a lazy freelance graphic designer can apparently cover the cost for a single family home). That air of vanity makes all of their confrontations seem especially disingenuous, given that these self-identifying artists aren’t exactly making the sort of personal sacrifices that, let’s say, Llewyn Davis makes.
Or perhaps consider the film’s emotional crescendo (where the improvisational humor that had undercut much of the film’s dramatic elements is muted) that sees Anna and Ben separate for the night. Anna’s dejected response is to the clean her home, where she uncovers a book among a messy pile titled “Overcoming Grief” (in case the film wasn’t explicitly clear for you). Meanwhile, Ben ends up receiving sage advice from his mother and finds emotional catharsis while playing a video game. Sorry, but that kind of privileged nonsense needs to be called out for what it is: bullshit.