t’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.
This post was updated to reflect the Academy Awards won.
This week’s musical:
“La La Land” (2016)– Musical #561
Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, J.K. Simmons, Tom Everett Scott, Rosemarie Dwitt
Living in Los Angeles, Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress who works as a barista in a coffee shop. Sebastian (Gosling) is an unemployed jazz musician who is bitter that he lost his previous jazz club and plans to open a new club. The two meet, fall in love and encourage each other’s dreams.
• Emma Watson was originally offered the role of Mia. She turned it down because the scheduling conflicted with “Beauty and the Beast.”
• Ryan Gosling learned how to play the piano for the film.
• Filmed on location in Los Angeles
• Damien Chazelle completed the screenplay for this film in 2010.
Classic Films I Felt Were Referenced Throughout the Film:
• The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
• The Umbrellas of Cherbourg(1964)
• Sweet Charity (1969)
• Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
• Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)
• The Band Wagon (1953)
• Funny Face (1957)
• An American In Paris (1951)
*Above list are visual references. In the film, they also discuss “Casablanca,” “Bringing Up Baby” and “Notorious.”
• “City Of Stars” performed by Ryan Gosling
• “A Lovely Night” performed by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
• “Another Day Of Sun” performed by an ensemble
• “Start A Fire” performed by John Legend
My Review (No Spoilers):
Some people loved “La La Land” and some hated it. I read comments and articles exclaiming, “Gosling and Stone are no Fred and Ginger!” or “This sure isn’t Singin’ in the Rain!” At the same time, I heard others say they feel it was the best film of 2016.
I would like to preface this review with my musical experience: As of Feb. 19, 2017, I have seen 561 movie musicals. This includes every musical film starring Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Ann Miller, Ginger Rogers, Debbie Reynolds, Doris Day, Eleanor Powell, June Allyson, Jane Powell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Cyd Charisse, Vera-Ellen, Betty Hutton and Bing Crosby. I have also seen every musical directed by Busby Berkeley, and I’m a tap dancer.
I point this out to say that I know what the classic movie musical of the Golden Era was, and I know what good and bad dancing is.
That being said: I saw “La La Land” twice in the theaters, and I loved it both times.
And while I thoroughly enjoy this film, it wasn’t because of stellar acting, magnificent dance numbers, or perfect singing. In fact, I will be the first to say the acting was standard and the dance numbers were amateur. (I read lots of criticism towards Ruby Keeler’s tap dancing. If you still criticize Ruby while praising Emma Stone’s dancing, we may need to have words).
But even with all that said, I still loved “La La Land”: It is a fresh, new take on the movie musical. I left the theater on a Friday night and was still thinking about the film on Wednesday and humming “City of Stars.” Few contemporary films affect me in that manner.
Though it may not sound like it, I did love Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as the leads. They were perfect for the film and have fabulous chemistry. They feel like a real couple and real people, and maybe that’s why I was so affected by this film.
The story of young people trying to reach their goals and balance a love life felt personal. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography contributed to that feeling: Sensing the tension and awkwardness of finding each other’s hands in a dark theater, an emotional fight at the dinner table, taking an uncertain chance with a career. It was all beautiful and emotional. Sandgren’s cinematography was also obviously inspired by Jacque Demy’s candy-colored 1960s musicals.
The actors sing well, and while Stone and Gosling aren’t Howard Keel and Judy Garland, it works with this more subdued musical and it feels less forced and more sincere.
“They have real, grounded voices that remind us of the French New wave ones,” “La La Land” composer Joseph Hurwitz said in an interview. “Emma has a beautiful, gorgeous, airy voice that is pure, vulnerable and breathy. She’s not a belter. Ryan’s voice is authentic; it doesn’t sound like anybody else’s. He brings a character to his voice. At times, there was an optimism that tipped into more somber tones, and we loved how subdued Ryan’s voice is. It wasn’t traditional.”
Don’t go in expecting a Broadway showstopper. This isn’t a musical theater show, and that was director Damien Chazelle’s intention.
“(I) thought there was stuff to be done in the [musical] genre that wasn’t being done right now — a way to make a grounded musical, or realistic musical, but in a way that still had the scope, and the sweep, and the spectacle of classic [films],” he said in an interview.
The songs and score are also great, but the quiet “City of Stars” is the song that stayed with me.
I don’t think this was made to be “the next Singin’ in the Rain.” To me, it is a love letter to classic Hollywood. Director Damien Chazelle pays homage to classic musicals with subtle references throughout the film: from “Singin’ in the Rain” to “American in Paris” to “Funny Face.”
Chazelle is a classic film fan and was even a Turner Classic Movies guest host. His selections included “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964), “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) and “It’s Only Fair Weather” (1955). If “La La Land” is “the next” anything, it is a different take on “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” which Chazelle has said in interviews is his favorite film.
Maybe some moviegoers were disappointed with the film. Maybe they were expecting a MGM musical. But a re-created Arthur Freed Unit film would have felt fake and like a hokey carbon copy of the Golden Era.
For those who hate musicals, don’t fear. Both times I saw this film, I went with friends who don’t love musicals, but they still loved the film; even tearing up at parts. The film focuses much more on jazz performances and has four or five song and dance numbers. The numbers are dispersed well throughout the film, rather than one right after the other.
Outside of the music, performance, and the cinematography, the costumes by Mary Zophres are to die for.
Following the success of this film, Emma Watson and Miles Teller were supposedly unhappy that they didn’t end up being in the film. Just because the film was a success with Stone and Gosling, doesn’t mean it would have been a success with Watson and Teller (I can’t imagine these two in the film). It reminded me of Norma Shearer being upset that she turned down “Mrs. Miniver” once Greer Garson won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Lead Performance.
For me, “La La Land” proves that audiences are open to seeing something different, and not every successful film has to be a mindless superhero or comic book film or R-rated comedy. Does “La La Land” mark the return of the movie musical? I’m doubtful, but I hope this could be the catalyst for more thought-provoking films in mainstream theaters.
Awards and Nominations:
Academy Award wins:
• Emma Stone for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
• Damien Chazelle for Best Achievement in Directing
• Linus Sandgren for Best Achievement in Cinematography
• Justin Hurwitz for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
• Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song for “City of Stars”
• Best Achievement in Production Design
Academy Award nominations:
• Best Motion Picture of the Year
• Ryan Gosling for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
• Damien Chazelle for Best Writing, Original Screenplay
• Tom Cross for Best Achievement in Film Editing
• Mary Zophres for Best Achievement in Costume Design
• Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
• Best Achievement in Sound Editing
• Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song for the song “The Fools Who Dream”
Golden Globes winning:
• Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
• Ryan Gosling for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
• Emma Stone for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
• Damien Chazelle for Best Director – Motion Picture
• Damien Chazelle for Best Screenplay – Motion Picture
• Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul for Best Original Song – Motion Picture for “City of Stars”
• Justin Hurwitz for Best Original Score – Motion Picture
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I feel pretty much the same way you do about La La Land. Having seen so many amazing classic musicals, I wasn’t expecting to find anything up to those standards. I agree with you though that that wasn’t the intent anyway. It would have been embarrassing if they tried it, and the film works because they don’t. While I have plenty of criticism about the film, I enjoyed it, love the soundtrack and will definitely watch it again.
Can you imagine someone trying to do the “Trolley Song” or “A Lady Loves” from “I Love Melvin”? It would just be weird! I mean, I could kind of tell from the previews that the dancing wasn’t going to be from the Stanley Donen school of dance. Thanks for reading!
Thank you for this thoughtful review. Being handicapped by MS and no longer driving, I sadly don’t go out to movies very often anymore. Which is why I haven’t yet seen “La La Land”, although I’ve been dying to go since it came out. I knew Ginger Rogers, am a lifelong Golden Age fan, and a pining LA expat, so was very excited to find out yesterday that my sister is taking me to see it in the fanciest theater in town for my birthday.
Thank you for reading! That’s really neat that you knew Ginger Rogers. I hope you enjoy the film when you see it! That sounds like a really fun time. You’ll have to let me know what you think!
Very intelligent review! Thank you. I haven’t seen La La Land yet, but I am looking forward to seeing it. Just from the trailer: One scene reminds me of the scene in Lovely to Look At when the Champions dance to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” They are my all time favorites. I think that Kander does a tribute to them in the musical “Curtains.” I love musicals. Enjoy your blog. And no, I did not expect this musical to be a copy of the great MGM musicals either. From all of the attention and awards it’s getting, it didn’t need to. It’s in its own class. Thank you for sharing your passion with us.
I thought what Ryan Gosling lacked (compared to Fred Astaire) was the ability to enjoy being poor and obscure, to express the idea that as long as can dance he’d be happy without a dime in his pocket. I never got the sense that he actually loved playing the piano for the sake of playing the piano.