Let’s start with a point that I am sure we’d all agree with, a movie is not real life, and, however much we suspend our disbelief when watching a film, deep down we know we are watching a fiction. Now let’s consider musicals. Loosely, that is films where, at the drop of a hat, characters move from speaking to singing and dancing to tell the story. Now, here, we are in no doubt that we are watching a fiction. Some folk like musicals, some do not. Oddly, for some time there has been this strange situation that ‘the Hollywood musical’ has been viewed as passé and naff yet musical theatre in the West End (London), on Broadway and around the world, has been extremely popular. Apparently, if you believe all the hype, change is coming. The latest Hollywood musical ‘La La Land’ is going to make screen musicals popular again.
Written and directed by the youthful, Damien Chazelle, ‘La La Land’ presents a 21st century musical version of the Hollywood dream scenario. It opens with an energetic, fast-paced, one-take, song and dance routine in the midst of an LA traffic jam. Then the focus tightens and we are introduced to Seb and Mia, played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (two major Hollywood stars), who will then sing, dance, play the piano and act out their tale for us.
A musical is fiction in capitals. Now, with that in mind, and taking into account that there are sequences of true flights of fantasy in this film, was it too much to ask that the two leads could actually sing and dance! I am a huge fan of Ryan Gosling, but honestly he can’t sing. It is really impressive that he learnt to play the featured piano pieces for the film but this ‘jazz’ playing must have had true jazz aficionados stuffing their fingers in their ears. I understand that Damien Chazelle is passionate about the old musicals (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as well as the big Hollywood hits, Singing in the Rain, et al) so why wouldn’t he celebrate the essence of ‘the musical’ which is the music, the singing and the dancing. I’ve heard well-known film critics explain that using stars that aren’t tiptop song and dance people gives an authentic feel to their performances. Mmmm, really? – I just feel so sad for all the young, talented musical theatre trained performers, wannabe film stars, grinding their teeth as they watch this.
However, I admit, I seem to be in a very small minority on this one. I was not impressed. All the knowing, clever, referential ‘homage to the great musical’ fell rather flat for me when the film’s leads turned out to be musical lightweights. What is the point of a musical if the stars can’t carry it (or a tune!)? I’ve heard and read plenty of reviews of this movie and cannot for the life of me understand what’s going on. Is this a postmodern and then post-ironic musical? One reviewer went as far as noting that there is ‘the charm of amateur singers’!!
I think we are living in unnerving and challenging times at the moment and people are looking for ‘warm glow’ escapism. I went to a Monday afternoon, big screen showing with a fair sized audience and there was a palpable feeling of disappointment at the end of this film.
I wrote the above on Monday evening and originally concluded my mutterings with “Something just didn’t feel right about it for me.”
Since then I’ve read these two, interesting and powerful, slightly less mainstream articles . . .
‘The Unbearable Whiteness of La La Land’ by Geoff Nelson
‘La La Land’s White Jazz Narrative’ by Ira Madison III
20 thoughts on “Mutter, mutter, mutter – La La Land”
Haven’t seen, but interesting take. ‘Big’ and highly popular movies frequently leave me cold with a sense of falsity and manipulation, maybe I’m just a grumpy old woman!
Yes, when I saw the bandwagon picking up speed I thought I might be a little disappointed. I purposely avoided all reviews before I went and feel quite perplexed on reading them now. Still, I guess it wouldn’t do for everybody to be in agreement all the time.
I haven’t seen the film but I see your point clearly. Like Russell Crowe in Les Misérables, some unfortunate actors end up making themselves remembered for the wrong reason. I think there is no one in the present Hollywood who can compete with Fred Astaire and alike of the era. The weakness of the musical like La La Land may be because they were too far away from the reality? Watching a film is one of my favourite way to escape the reality. But some films can be too unbelievable, and therefore I can’t even sympathise with it.
Oh I must say that Ryan Gosling is more than passable compared to Russell Crowe, but I wanted to be thrilled. And, as you mention Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were thrilling. I wasn’t expecting old style song and dance routines, and actually think there is great contemporary choreography around and fabulous songs too, but maybe there aren’t any stars that are multitalented enough to pull it off these days. The camera doesn’t always work for theatre people and this was, after all, a film.
Yes, I agree. Singing and dancing, no matter how intensively they train for the project, they can’t compete against someone like Astaire who was dancing since he was a boy. If I can persuade Paul, who is not a massive musical fan, we will watch it this weekend. I like a light hearted happy film right now especially because that man with dodgy hair is about to be one of the most powerful men on this planet. I need anything (except illegal stuff) to escape the reality…😭
100% with you on escaping reality. 🙃
On the other hand, you can get the Dick Van Dyke situation where you have a great song and dance man whose Cockney accent left everything to be desired!
Oh you’ve made me laugh and you’re so on the nail with that one! And isn’t there the possibility of him doing a cameo for the upcoming remake? 😄😄😄
Yes and that would be amazing!
I haved the feeling I was right to decline a friend’s suggestion that we go and see it together. She went anyway, and was underwhelmed.
Good call on that one. You weren’t underwhelmed and you saved a tenner too.
‘Have’ not ‘haved’, obviously 😉
😊 didn’t notice actually. Read it as had originally!
Ahh interesting. When I saw the title of the post I thought you were going to completely slam the film, but it seems you didn’t walk out saying “there’s two hours of my life I will never get back again” 🙂 I saw it last week, and went along just expecting it to be light entertainment – which it was. I don’t get why it is winning all the awards, unless, just like in the 1930s, people are looking to suspend belief and “escape” for a couple of hours, and so it is rushing along on a wave of nostalgia. Having said that, I did think the cinematography was good. I was expecting something like the opening scene to continue all the way through the film – spontaneous singing for no logical reason (a bit like Nelson Eddy and Janette McDonald all those decades ago), so was relieved it attempted a story line. I liked the dancing moment and thought it could have done with much more of that. But I TOTALLY agree, the voices were not up to the job. I was immediately put in mind of Mamma Mia with Pierce Brosnan and Meryl Streep. In the cinema I saw it, the opening scene also sounded too far away from the microphones. I thought the cinema might not have its speakers adjusted correctly, but the soundtrack came through okay after that, so perhaps it had something to do with the manner in which it had to be filmed, or voiced-over in the studio later. With all those latent references to Casablanca, I was on edge that the final line was going to be, “Play it Sam” so was doubly relieved that did not happen. Nevertheless, as a piece of light entertainment, I enjoyed it well enough. . . . Curiously, I had just seen Chazelle’s film Whiplash on the TV a few nights before. I would rate that higher; and still feel a knot of tension in my stomach just recalling some of the scenes from that.
Ah yes, my daughter said she thought Whiplash was a far superior film all round. Oh I thought it was just me when I couldn’t hear the singing properly in the opening traffic routine. It didn’t seem to me as though it was synched properly and visually the whole thing kept going in and out of focus. It made me feel a bit queasy. I see loads of the critics are very impressed with the long, one take business, but I don’t see why if the finished product feels amateurish. (If you’re interested at about 2.30 into this clip shows you how they did it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnW3t9mrPyg )
I didn’t pay to see Mamma Mia, but suffered the poor singing for about 20 mins on the telly before I gave up. I know people want to see stars, but there are stars and there are stars and they may have charisma, but if they can’t sing and dance they shouldn’t be in a professional musical. I once saw Eartha Kitt on stage in Follies in London. Wow, she might not have had a beautiful voice, but she was in tune and boy did give a electrifying performance. And, what about Liza Minnelli in Cabaret or even for a more rock sounding musical the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Sorry La La Land, for me it was can’t sing, can’t dance, can’t play jazz piano, bland choreography, dull score, monotonous, repeating musical theme and two nondescript songs. I didn’t walk out, but I did nearly fall asleep in the middle. And, on just what planet does that ending make this a ‘feel good’ film! 😢 😭
Mutter, mutter along with you…I was lucky enough to attend the Palm Springs International Film Festival a couple of weeks ago and saw some dynamite international films…but needing a little comic relief from some of their themes (poverty, racism, war, muslim radicalization of youth etc) my husband and I popped out to a mainstream cinema to see La La Land. What a disappointment – light and underwhelming for sure! Cannot understand all the academy nominations for it either. Good thing about it though was that paying seniors rate (age 60 in the US!) it only cost us $15. for the two of us;-)
Well, I can’t imagine seeing La La Land when you’ve just seen some really good films as the disappointment must have been even sharper. Still as you say you got a bargain deal, mind you I rather felt that it was 2 hours of my life I could have been doing something less boring. And, I must repeat that’s speaking as a fan. I think Ryan Gosling is your yummiest export since maple syrup!!!
Great review with so many provocations. I’m not at all convinced that a great musical needs great singers. Or great dancers. Or a great story, or great cinematography. But it needs the right mix of all of these cinematic elements to produce the feel-good toe-tapping emotional response that is the key indicator of a good musical. La La Land is a winner for many reasons, some are political and historical, and others because Hollywood feels it is owed a giant hug. Now I’m not easily brought to tears, hardened as I am by seeing about 100 movies a year, but that last scene in La La Land was a masterful piece of editing, with the painful reverie of what might have been and the excruciatingly slow rendition of Seb on keys with City of Stars. That was pure magic.
Thanks for reading my little rant. I wrote as I saw and felt. I had stuffed my fingers in my ears and covered my eyes so as not to be persuaded one way or the other before I saw it during the opening weekend here in the UK. And, I was so hopeful I would love it, but alas it wasn’t even toe-tapping for me. I have a feeling that once all the brouhaha as died down that this isn’t going to be a film with much staying power beyond the hardcore Gosling fans, and, in my case even as such a fan, I doubt I’ll sit through it again. Still it would be such a boring world if we all thought alike. Always good to read a counter viewpoint.