Spoilers and snobbery ahead!
With the Academy Awards coming up, I wanted to write a little something about the most buzzed about movie this year, La La Land. It seems whenever a musical or a film focused on dance comes out, suddenly more of my friends and family want to know what I think. As a former dancer and certainly a movie musical aficionado, I get that people might want to know how I rate such a film. Their assumption is usually, “Did you just love it?” Sometimes I do, often I don’t. You see, I am a movie musical snob. My standards for the genre, as well as for the art form of dance within said genre, are probably higher than reasonable, but why shouldn’t they be? When you have a lush history of films that bring together some of the most talented dancers with the most ingenious choreography, along with singers that have defined culture, and filmmakers that pushed the boundaries of what the moving image can do, I think it’s pretty fair to demand a certain quality from a musical.
La La Land doesn’t hold up.
Let me preface this scathing review by telling you that I really wanted to like this film. I really did.
While there are certainly things I can appreciate about the film – The acting from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling is fine. These are two top-notch actors with fantastic on-screen chemistry and like-ablity (even when Gosling’s character is being a straight up dick.) The cinematography is interesting and the array of LA locations summon up a “love-letter” to Los Angeles feel akin to, though not nearly as expertly done, as Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Everyone who knows me can attest that I am a sucker for a romantic movie (even a really crap one) so I must admit that my favorite moment of the film is at the end, when we are treated to an imagining of how things might have been if our protagonists had been less self-involved and made different choices. But that’s about all the positive things I can say about the film. Every other aspect of it left me either bored, annoyed, or even offended.
Firstly, why make this film into a musical? What did it really add? The sorry attempt to equate this film with classic musicals like Singin’ in the Rain or Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, which it did through numerous references and homages, seemed arbitrary, and added nothing to the story. Rather it came off as an ego-centric attempt by director Damien Chazelle to try and imitate those films or worse, educate us about them. I know what a good musical is Chaz! It’s the height of hubris to think that one could match those films’ artistry, especially when you cast your main characters with actors who can’t really sing and can’t really dance.
So that brings me to the singing and dancing. Here’s how I see it – When the acting in a film is terrible chances are it won’t do well at the box office. When you make a musical you are adding additional skills to the recipe – namely singing and dancing – and those skills matter. Well, they should matter. And if you think they don’t matter, you’re essentially flipping the bird at all the incredible artists who worked tirelessly to legitimize this form of entertainment by upping the standards of both vocal range and dance technique – People like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Vincent Minelli and Arthur Freed. Part of this just comes down to casting, but blame also befalls the creative team behind the camera.
Are you still with me? If so, let me just take a final moment to dissect the element I feel the most qualified to critique – the dancing. Ignoring the fact that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling make the most awkward attempt at on-screen partnering I’ve ever seen; even if you had Robbie Fairchild and Tiler Peck in those roles, the choreography would still fall flat. Predictable, cliche, lazy even, Mandy Moore’s choreography is fine for a music video or a TV show, but when stacked against a genre, and promoted as a peer amongst such films that exposed the masses to the work of Gene Kelly, Michael Kid, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, and George Balanchine, it majorly misses the mark. I certainly do not mean to belittle the many challenges that may have dictated the way this film was choreographed; I imagine having leads not up to the physical requirements was partly an issue. However, I cannot help but feel that Damien Chazelle has done us a serious disservice by undermining the value of truly innovative choreography. He could have hired any of the best, most artistic choreographers working today – Justin Peck, Christopher Wheeldon, Paul Lightfoot or Alexei Ratmansky and I guarantee, the performances would have been better. As it is, the choreography in La La Land is typical, bland, and totally forgettable. Why do it then?
I realize that many aren’t watching the dancing with the same kind of intensity as I may be. I acknowledge that “silly musicals,” even modern ones, are a fantastic gateway for people to get into more complicated representations of the genre. I think that’s incredibly valuable and in this regard, I can conclude that this film does what it needs to do, and I can even be grateful for that. But I cannot condone a film that spends 30 million dollars on a musical meant to be on the artistic level of An American in Paris that instead serves up a sham of production, with terrible choreography, awkward dancing, weak music, and a paper-thin storyline that we’ve already heard a dozen times. It doesn’t move the genre forward, it is simply a sad attempt to imitate it.
I will say one thing I liked, were the costumes. Well done Mary Zophres!
I am sure the film will win loads of Oscars. But in 50 years will it hold up the way all those classic musicals from the 40’s and 50’s do? I seriously doubt it.