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Is ‘La La Land’ a Good Musical?

Forget the backlash and the Oscar argument for a second, and simply focus on the song and the dance. Bear with us.

(Getty Images/Summit Entertainment/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Summit Entertainment/Ringer Illustration)

The year 2016’s prettiest, perkiest bit of cinematic awards-show bait begins on the freeway, rendering the mundane fantastical, conjuring balletic elegance and sly humor from the drudgery of everyday routine. The colors pop, the fresh faces beam, the soaring melody bears you heavenward. The glittery whole casts everything in a new light — the old stuff especially. It leaves you electrified, spiritually renewed. You’re in. Let’s do this. An opening flourish for the ages.

Anyway, that’s Deadpool. It is time to deal with La La Land, the Golden Globes–hogging cultural phenomenon, the likely Oscar lock, and the target of a thus-fearsome backlash. It is also, as you have probably heard, a musical. The specific question before us today: Is it a great one? Does it boast an original song even half as rousing and yearning as A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran,” which is gently ridiculed in an early scene meant to establish Emma Stone’s adorkable populism and Ryan Gosling’s tiresome snootiness? Can director Damien Chazelle hope to unseat South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut as the finest movie musical of our generation? (It’s true!) The answer to those last two questions is a definitive “no.” The answer to the first is a sheepish “probably.” Let’s run some numbers and feel some feelings.

Step 1 is to discard “Another Day of Sun,” the much-beloved traffic-jam opener. Sorry. It’s a Gap ad. Or, given its saccharine fizziness, maybe a Coke ad. A Coke Zero ad. A twinkle in Don Draper’s eye. Way too vapid and impressed with itself, setting the “Even the shitty parts of Los Angeles are transcendent” tone now largely feeding the backlash. The lyrics are swallowed by the overexuberance, composer Justin Hurwitz’s peppy piano chords building a staircase to nowhere, the sunny twin to Frank Ocean’s Endless. The Jimmy Fallon parody version — unveiled, of course, at the Golden Globes — wrote itself. Too much! And yet not enough! It’s all very L.A.

Even if you haven’t been reading Chazelle’s press, you may already intimately know the various moons he’s shooting for here, chief among them the joyous, barge-riding credit sequence to Jacques Demy’s 1967 musical Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, still the gold standard as far as “sexy young people commuting” dance numbers are concerned.

If you’re the guy who made La La Land, you bring that scene up as a preemptive attempt to place your movie in that hallowed All-Time Movie Musicals pantheon; if you’re among the leagues of pissy internet people who hate La La Land — or just really love Moonlight, this season’s other big Oscar contender — you wield that same hallowed canon as a cudgel against it. But to even evoke, say, Singin’ in the Rain in this argument is a little facile, whatever your intention. These things don’t translate, and aren’t supposed to. As young, struggling artistes, Gosling and Stone are no Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds by design. They’re amateurs as singers and dancers both, sloppy and sweet. Wow, they’re not terrible at this, you’re made to think, full of not so much wonder as relief.

It’s the difference between Dancing With the Stars and an era when the dancers actually were the stars. We’d much rather watch great actors sing passably than great singers act passably. Times are tough, so if we can pick only one, La La Land picks the right one. Leave Debbie beaming on that ladder, and Gene floating several inches off the ground. There’s no comparison, and nobody on any side of this debate thinks otherwise.

(Screenshots via Amazon)
(Screenshots via Amazon)

The Singin’ in the Rain song that really drives home how dramatically the movie-musical landscape has changed is “Make ’Em Laugh.” Donald O’Connor’s tour de force knocked ’em dead in 1952, but in the cynical 21st century, it scans as totally exhausting. When things start getting super-manic halfway through, your primary thought now, absent any factual basis, is still likely to be “COCAINE.” (When Joseph Gordon-Levitt built his Saturday Night Live monologue around the song in 2012, the effect was similarly terrifying.) It is unfashionable, in this day and age, to try nearly this hard to make ’em do anything.

Even at its flashiest, La La Land never attempts anything this physically demanding: The camera doles out all the pyrotechnics, whether it’s the dizzying swimming-pool flourish that briefly elevates the vapid party anthem “Someone in the Crowd,” or the moment in “Planetarium” when Stone and Gosling glance at each other and surge heavenward. That’s a rad scene, by the way. La La Land is an effervescent and bracingly bittersweet movie, done a disservice by the weight and towering height of all the statues accruing around it.

The only issue is that camera pyrotechnics don’t do you much good on Spotify. It’s A-minus filmmaking propping up B-minus songs at best. (That’s a tough curve, but if you’re seeking the pantheon, them’s the breaks.) Stone and Gosling’s first big number, the single-take pre-lover’s quarrel “A Lovely Night,” pops and fizzes onscreen, with a graceful, casual ease that slowly accumulates into something resembling a showstopper. Within the movie, those limitations fit their characters, and fit the genial mood, and underscore that these kids, however charming, haven’t exactly figured it out yet. It makes sense in context that they’d sing an OK song in their charmingly OK voices, breathy and a little breathless. Put Idina Menzel in Stone’s spot and she’d bring the whole set crashing down, which would only remind you that it’s just a set.

But absent that context, the song won’t do much for you as an audio-only experience. (This is no trivial matter: The La La Land soundtrack is currently the no. 2 album in America, behind the Weeknd’s Starboy.) (INTERVIEW IDEA: Ask the Weeknd if he’s seen La La Land.) The visuals are a scaffold for the sonics, not the other way around.

If any song here will endure once awards season is over, bet on “City of Stars,” a fine, understated bit of Chet Baker worship, with a delicate gravity not worth flouting. The melody is so sturdy and unflashy that it can carry Gosling, not the other way around; simplicity is a plus when your singer can’t handle much complexity. It’s also a bit of an earworm, and if you’ve had it stuck in your head for weeks, you are entitled to your discouraging words. But it’s the movie’s best attempt at showing you what’s actually in his head other than total disdain for all the music everyone else is making. He’s not some genius — just a mopey, nostalgic guy with one striking (and mopey, and nostalgic) tune in his head.

That’s likewise the moment when Gosling briefly transcends La La Land’s other big problem, which is the whole White Men Explain Jazz to You issue. Things get a little screwy when we drill down to the question of what this movie intends to preserve, what nefarious 21-century outside forces it’s actually protecting us from. In other words, it’s hard to know what to think when John Legend shows up.

Question for you: Is this song supposed to be bad, on purpose? Are you, like Stone, supposed to cringe at the Muchness of it — the glossy and empty smoothness, the backup dancers who prance onstage halfway through, the corniness of Gosling’s synthesizer solo, which triggers a stage-ward surge of screaming women? Is Gosling’s character debasing himself by joining this band, steady and successful and oddly crowd-pleasing as it might be? Is it a little strange that this movie posits jazz as a dying art form but jazz fusion as a mainstream sensation that knocks ’em dead in Boise?

A modern-movie-musical reference point here might be Beyoncé’s disco version of “One Night Only” in Dreamgirls, which in the plot functions as an inadvertent heel turn, a cynical and garish desecration of the pure and real and true original. But that seemed unfair to disco (and Beyoncé!) even in context, and likewise in La La Land, Chazelle doesn’t seem to know what “selling out” would really entail. Of course, if he had a better idea, this movie might have a Chainsmokers cameo, so consider yourselves lucky.

As with most people — and certainly most big-shot directors — he is far more comfortable rhapsodizing the past than imagining the future. The other big Great Musical ghost we’re chasing here is the ultimate Jacques Demy joint, 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, all the dialogue sung, and flashy choreography abandoned altogether. The gorgeous, operatic sweep of “I Will Wait for You” carries the movie almost single-handedly (spoiler alert: she doesn’t), anchoring a grim tale of economic anxiety, war, and doomed long-distance love affairs. Everyone settles. It’s very inspiring.

The lesson of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is “keep your ambitions modest, and be prepared to sacrifice true love for convenience”; the lesson of La La Land is “be prepared to sacrifice true love for your grandiose ambitions.” It’s hard to know who, or what, to root for, exactly. The wisest solution, as always, is to just root for Emma Stone.

This is the best moment on the La La Land soundtrack, and the best part of the movie, precisely because of how deep a hole she has to dig out of. This is a goopy song hailing “the ones who dream,” “the painters and puppets and plays,” etc. Yikes. On paper, it’s heavier than lead. But we’re back where we started: If you have one “great,” one “bad,” and one “decent” to distribute in this equation, you’d definitely prefer watching a great actress and decent singer sell a bad song. The radiance of Singin’ in the Rain’s “Good Morning” is in the delivery, not the truckloads of corn they’re delivering. It’s the same here. Stone’s big moment, her transformation from amateur to professional — from the dreamer to the dream itself — it gets to you, transcending everything, its own cheeseball limitations most of all.

It’s no “Make ’Em Laugh,” no “I Ran,” no “Angel of the Morning.” But you might tear up all the same. The key to cracking the All-Time Movie Musicals pantheon is to convince the heart to overpower the brain — a question of what you can make sing, and float, and soar. There is so much weighing La La Land down, including, now, the industry forces thunderously singing its praises. You can’t block all that out, the vast majority of the time. Which makes the rare, fleeting moments when you can all the sweeter. Just don’t believe everything you’re told, or anything you’re sung.