For the past few weeks, I have been listening to friends of mine from the performing community argue about La La Land. Some say they LOVE it. Others were annoyed by the fact that the lead roles were not played by actual musical theatre performers. And others, like me, were just not moved.
Call me crazy, but when I go to see a musical, I expect music. I expect memorable music. Over the years, Stephen Sondheim has been ridiculed by harsh critics for not composing “hum-able tunes.” He even wrote a song about it for Merrily We Roll Along. Hum-able is not necessarily a compliment. Sondheim songs are hard. They are musically complex, and so are his impeccably written lyrics. But Sondheim songs do what they are supposed to do. They move the story, they give us insight into the mind of the character, and they move us in often very profound ways. And one more thing; they are also very beautiful. While they might not be hum-able, they are unforgettable. La La land’s music is delicate, pleasant, and entirely forgettable.
In many ways, this film reminded me of the The Actor, which won so many awards years ago, and then was promptly ignored. I rather feel that the same might happen with this piece. Like The Actor, this film deals with people in the business of entertaining, and the inevitable angst that goes along with suffering for your art. Writer/Director Damian Chazelle, who also wrote and directed Whiplash, clearly likes to write about the pain and suffering of gifted artists. He grapples with serious issues that artists encounter; harsh criticism, heartless people in powerful positions, relationships that must be shared with the artist’s devotion to his/her art, jealousy, you name it. The characters in La La Land did not have to literally bleed, as the young jazz musician did in Whiplash, but this movie offers no Hollywood ending like Singing in the Rain. Mind you, this picture also does not have a string of memorable, iconic song and dance numbers like Singing in the Rain does either. More’s the pity.
Although I did not care for her first few film performances, Emma Stone has grown on me over her last few films, especially her performance in Birdman. I have always been impressed with Ryan Gosling’s work ever since I saw him in the 2001 film Believer. He is charming in this, and so is Stone. Her huge, expressive eyes made the audition scene heartbreaking and excruciating. They have a lovely chemistry. Their singing and dancing skills are slightly better than you might see at a Junior High School musical, but then, as I already mentioned, the music is so lackluster, they were not given much to work with.
But let’s not forget that this is not NY NY, this is LA LA. And I don’t mind that they are not superb singers and dancers since they are both superb actors. And now I have opened the kettle of fish that is at the centre of conversation with my circle of theatrical friends and colleagues.
Whenever an actor, who is known only for straight, non-musical roles, sings and/or dances, the audience is often full of praise, adoration, and even shock. The idea that Christopher Walken can DANCE is still being discussed, even though he danced in Pennies From Heaven more than thirty years ago. People were astounded that Anne Hathaway actually sang in (the utterly terrible film) Les Miz. When Hugh Laurie put out an album of blues songs, people called him a genius. (He not only can speak with an American accent, he can play the guitar and SING.)
I can’t tell you how many times I have had a conversation with someone about my years performing in opera and musical theatre, and they ask, “Have you ever acted?”
Is it impossible to imagine that actors who sing are still actors? Why is there so much respect for “straight” actors who can handle music but so little for singers and dancers who can develop a character and tell their story? The fact that sometimes the character is singing or dancing does not mean they are doing that outside of defining their character and their place in the drama. The singing and dancing is part of the language they are using to bring that character across.
So, while I am not one of the people who is angry that the main characters in La La Land are not Broadway musical performers, my disappointment in the film is not connected with that. Ironically, J.K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for his performance in Whiplash and has a small, non-singing part in La La Land, DOES have a resume that includes Broadway musicals. But since most people are only familiar with his film and TV work, I am sure one day people will be shocked and delighted to find out that he can SING!
And here he is: