I grew up on movie musicals. You might not think it to look at the other posts on this blog, but they were a big part of my life. The love went deeper than that. My family had a background in musical theater, and in my youth I joined a junior theater company where I could be in musicals myself.
So I at least kinda know about what I’m talking about.
I’m not a great singer or a great dancer, but I witnessed people who were. They were awe-inspiring. You couldn’t take your eyes off them. I was an admirer of performers like Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Bob Fosse, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers in my childhood (the last one famous for doing everything Astaire did, but “backwards and in high heels”). That’s why we go to the movies.
I was wary when I first heard about La La Land. On the one hand, a well-done throwback movie musical in 2016/2017 could be fun and exciting, sheer escapism at a much needed time. On the other hand, what if it didn’t work…
When I saw the first trailer, I was more nervous. I like Ryan Gosling. I like Emma Stone. I liked them playing opposite each other in Crazy, Stupid Love. But…for a throwback to Hollywood musicals? I’d have thought you’d want some real powerhouse singers and dancers. And the visuals themselves…dancing in a field of stars sounds very romantic and all, but I didn’t really feel anything emotionally when I saw trailers and promos.
I thought, to be fair, maybe they’re holding back, they don’t want to spoil all the good stuff before the audience is in the theater. I can respect that. And maybe context would make all those moments magical after all. So I saw the movie.
Let me break down why the movie didn’t work:
Casting and Characters
Again, I like Gosling and Stone, they are utterly charming, but I think for the leads in a throwback movie musical, it may have behooved the film to cast musical theater actors. People who could sing, dance, AND act. There are many of them looking for work. I mean, that’s what the movie’s ABOUT. You could have had some life imitating art by casting some unknowns.
And if you really felt you NEEDED big names, well, there are other actors who can really bring musical talent to a film. And if that had been the case, the musical numbers could have been more frequent and more ambitious (but more on that later).
And, hey, a jazz pianist might have been a nice opportunity to cast a black actor. Especially considering that every jazz artists referenced and featured is black. But no. Instead you’ve got some white guy parading around like he’s gonna be the savior of jazz.
Another thing that was missing from the classic musical set-up was a cast of characters. There were two leads and everyone else was peripheral. We didn’t even have the “best friend” or the “villain.” It might have been fun if they had taken the roommates that Mia’s character had in the beginning and fleshed them out, given them more to do.
Or take J.K. Simmons character and make him a recurring adversary with a bad guy song. The fact that J.K. Simmons was cast in a musical and never sang is a criminal offense anyway. Hell, even his guest spot in an episode of the Thrilling Adventure Hour featured a showstopping number and multiple reprises. You have NO excuse La La Land!
OR make Gosling and Stone supporting characters, they do less singing and dancing, but are still featured. You could have done any of these things.
I want to be fair to the music. Cause it was good. I caught myself smiling at the reoccurring melodies at a couple of point. It was nice.
It could have been more. It should have been more.
Aside from the fact that there were only a few original songs that were just used over and over (I’m looking at you, “City of Stars”), I found them forgettable. To contrast, after I saw Sing Street, which granted is a very different type of musical with a very different style of music, I downloaded several of their original songs as soon as I got home, I woke up the next morning with “The Riddle of the Model” stuck in my head, and found myself humming “Drive It Like you Stole It” later in the day.
With La La Land, try as I might, I can’t recall any music from it without seeking it out to remind myself. All great musicals should worm their way into your brain, you should find yourself humming the music as you go through your day. I haven’t. I’ve actually actively TRIED, and I can’t.
This leads me back to that first point again. Maybe the music could have been more sophisticated (and there could have been more of it) if there were more accomplished singers in the lead roles. I mean, Gosling can sing, though I’d never think of him as a singer, and Stone…well, it wasn’t grating or anything, but I really wondered what she was doing as the star of a musical whenever she started to sing.
Again, I want to be fair. The dancing was not a wash across the board. That opening scene is a lot of fun, and they definitely found their singer/dancers for that. The image of them all standing on top of their cars in rush hour traffic is probably the reason Damien Chazelle wanted to make the movie in the first place.
This number also exhibited another thing musicals should do: something new, whether it’s leaping across the ceiling or tap dancing in roller skates, it’s a new way to set the stage. You have to give this scene credit.
The tap dance between the two leads as they walk to their cars was cute too. And I actually found myself giddy with anticipation when Mia sat down to change her shoes in that scene (“she’s puttin’ on tap shoes!”), and she and her roommates dancing down the street, leading into the wild Hollywood party had that classic musical feel.
Across the board I wanted more. A showstopper: men in tails dancing down a grand staircase, an “audition” with singers and dancers. All That Jazz (the movie, not the song from Chicago) is an example of a musical with a lead who’s not a dancer, but makes you forget that because there’s SO much dancing whenever he’s around.
I think part of the problem in La La Land was a fear of the chorus “showing up” the leads, but you can absolutely make that work. And it was exactly the model for All That Jazz.
Chicago (since All That Jazz is making you all think of it anyway) sort of did this as well by casting Renee Zellweger as the lead, but then supporting her with Catherine Zeta-Jones, the latter of who is a dancer, and fronts most of the big numbers.
I wanted Mia’s roommates to have their own number, a choreographed dance breaking out at the stuffy club where Sebastian was playing Christmas songs, a Fosse send up at the jazz club! PLEASE! Instead a lot of the dancing was delegated to the same two damn people all movie long, and because they aren’t dancers, it resulted in a lot of serviceable waltzing. As I said at the beginning, I watch movie musical to be in awe of the performers, not to think “…yeah…I could probably do that with a couple weeks of training.”
To touch back on that, take-a-chance, cast-some-singer/dancers thing: In the early 50’s MGM cast a 19 year old actress with only a few credits to her name as the lead in their upcoming production. The production was Singin’ in the Rain. The 19 year old was Debbie Reynolds.
It was a bit like a kick in the gut, a mere weeks after her death to see La La Land, after it had been tauted as a throwback to classic movie musicals to see such mediocre dancing, and watch awards get launched at an average film that does little to uphold the the style and craftsmanship that you see in classic movie musicals.
And maybe it’s just me, but that movie I mentioned earlier, Sing Street, is far batter and also a musical, but not a classic movie musical with big dance numbers in it (and has one anyway) because it’s about an 80’s New Wave band. It sucks it came out this year, because La La Land is gonna sweep the floor with it at the Oscars (they already did at the Globes). I’m mad at the situation, but that sucks.
They Didn’t “Earn” It
La La Land just wasn’t ready to be made. Chazelle needed to take a step back and really decide what movie he was trying to make. Is it a musical that’s authentically joyful, or is it a cynical commentary of the hypocrisy of L.A.? It can’t be both. Unless he’s gaslighting us.
The characterization should have been stronger, and there should have been more characters! The music should have been given more time, the choreography CERTAINLY needed work. You hear stories about classic Hollywood dancers dancing until their feet bled or they made themselves physically ill. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those are the films we remember. Those are the films that last. In comparison La La Land comes across as half-baked mediocrity. I’m not saying you have to hurt yourself to make a good movie, but there’s a dedication those actors had, because this was their craft. They’d been working at it their whole lives.
Part of what frustrates me is it will make a killing at the box office and continue to clean up throughout awards season. We continue to award average filmmaking. This film inspires me in no way. Points me in no direction. What was the message even supposed to be? Do the filmmakers know? This is what will actually kill the movie musical. Lowering expectations and achievements.
I get that making a film is hard, boy, do I get it. I get that making a musical is challenging, but just because both things happened doesn’t mean it’s automatically brilliant. We don’t reward movies simply because they get made. We reward movies that are outstanding in their field. This movie stands out to me in no way other than my frustration whenever I see it’s up for more awards. “That thing? I had almost succeeded in forgetting about it.”
I’ll grit my teeth through the Oscars this year and roll my eyes as it’s name is repeatedly called. And please stop pretending to be surprised when you win. We don’t believe you. You made this movie to win awards. It worked. Congrats. I’m gonna go watch Shall We Dance to keep from screaming.