Why the Backlash? and The Cipher of the Musical Film
By Colby Herchel
La La Land is a movie that is doing exceptionally well across the board, and deservedly so. It’s getting people from all walks of life into the theatre, and this reviewer has been dazzled by the work of both director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz, from both this outing and 2014’s Whiplash. So some are rightfully confused with the “Oscar backlash” it’s getting from both film critics as well as lovers of musicals. Why, if something is reaching out to everyone as a fun dose of optimism, is it worth the trouble nitpicking? There are certain moments that the film goer should relax and take it in, and not linger on inconsistencies. Tom Hanks said of it, “if the audience doesn’t go and embrace something as wonderful as this then we are all doomed.” I guess we’re not doomed.
But there comes a moment, namely tying the record number of Oscar nominations, that gives these critics a pause for thought. This is no longer a fun distraction— this has become the representation for the musical film. And to answer the question, should it be? No, it should not.
I’m certainly not making any friends here, but I urge you to see it this way: this article is not a put down of the movie in any way, but more importantly, a context provider, a reaching hand into another understanding. What were choices, what were mistakes, and, most importantly, where do we go next?
Musical on Film on Musical
First and foremost, I would like to make one thing clear: a medium is a means of expression, like a book, a painting, a play, or yes, a film. They do different things and have their strengths in different areas. None are superior; they are different at the basest level. A genre is a trend or style of storytelling, like science fiction, horror, or comedy. As you may have noticed, the world at large lists the musical as a genre. This is understandable, as there are certainly tropes in classic Hollywood musicals that are consistent. But when you really think about it, the musical doesn’t have to have a romantic or cheesy slant in order to be a musical. It simply has to be a story told with the characters singing. In fact, musicals have their own genres, think of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair as rock musicals, and Hamilton and Bring in ‘da noise, Bring in ‘da Funk as hip-hop musicals. So you can find it problematic that in the same genre are smushed Sweeney Todd and Hairspray. They tell completely different stories with completely different music, but both happen to have characters who sing. Isn’t the musical beginning to sound like a medium to you?
Now, when you throw in the musical film, you have a whole new set of issues. For some reason or other, when people see a musical live, they are more forgiving of the singing. Whether people used to treat showtunes as pop songs or that hearing music live adds a concert feel to the event, it seems to work. But when you film a character singing, it is an entirely different moment. Film is constantly trying to create the most realistic scenario, and Theatre always requires a bit more imagination (which is why puppetry is especially jarring at first). When a character in close up belts that she is telling you she’s not going, there is no realism. The illusion is immediately shattered, and many film goers can no longer stomach it.
This issue is usually explained away by this (which Damien Chazelle has discussed in interviews): the character has reached an emotional point in which they can do nothing but sing their feelings. I am not fully subscribed to this, as have you ever met anyone who has been so emotional that they have to sing? With backup orchestra and all? Chazelle, for that matter, does not subscribe to this either, as there is probably one instant in La La Land that the character sings a song out of desperate emoting. Oddly, we have some modern entries in this category, Les Miserables and Into the Woods, which I think both work pretty well, but lack a certain reasoning which is inherently off-putting. Adapting a stage musical to film is always an issue, to be sure.
So alright, the Gene Kelly and Vincent Minelli explanation falls flat. And it physically did, in 1969, when the Hello, Dolly! film was an inordinate flop (which is a shame, that movie is comic GOLD). The stories that had characters just sing for no reason other than singing were no longer working.
The musical film could never be the same. Bob Fosse, that rascal, was the first to really challenge back. With Cabaret in 1972, Fosse made a film where every number took place diegetically in a music bar, which offered commentary on the scenes. This device was so well received Fosse beat Francis Ford Coppola for Best Director at the Oscars the year The Godfather was up to bat. We all forgot about this device until Rob Marshall brought it back for Chicago in 2002 to similar praise. Every song occurs in Renee Zellweger’s booze addled brain. I personally like this idea, but unfortunately, it doesn’t allow for the freedom other solutions bring.
So along came a little picture, a humble, indie darling you’ve never heard of. Moulin Rouge! I think it’s called. This was the first to sell the idea that sometimes, in a musical, everything is ridiculous and you can get it or get out. This is fun, but not very challenging. This embrace of the ridiculousness of the medium also bleeds into La La Land, but to a lesser extent. Obviously people in the real world don’t sing, but forget it, it’s fun! “What if they don’t like it?” “Fuck ‘em.” I usually find myself crinkling my nose at these outings, mostly because they do really well, and stigmatize musicals even more than they are by everyday moviegoers. To put it in perspective, I also classify Mamma Mia! in this subset. The post-Seinfeld cynical self awareness can go so far, but meta humor is a kind of well that all too quickly runs dry.
What is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for Christ-sakes?
What is this reviewer’s favorite, you may ask? Well, let’s rewind back to 1964, before Hello, Dolly! and even The Sound of Music. And while we’re taking the time tour, let’s pop over the Atlantic Ocean. Jacques Demy’s les parpluies de Cherbourg, or, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, is a film entirely told through a jazz soundtrack about two ill-fated young lovers (Michel Legrand the more than competent composer this time around). Sound familiar? The differences, then, are twofold. The characters only sing in this film, which makes Les Miserables critics moan. Don’t worry, the songs never take their time to withhold information, but rather press on at the rate any movie would (its run time is a blessed 90 minutes). It actually has more in common with opera than you would expect, but that’s a thesis for another day. The other difference between this and La La Land is in the fact that the characters are decidedly not dreamers. They are a poor daughter of a single mother, and an orphan who works at a petrol station. The dramatic kick comes at the end, at the pan out from a gas station. These emotional highs and lows came from the most mundane of locations, and the reason for singing is a beautiful one: your difficult life is worthy of music. How does this translate as a format, then? Simple: give a thematic reason. It doesn’t have to be revealed the minute the movie starts, but as long as it plays into the major themes of the film, it fits. These characters constantly talk about the opera, and about the melodrama in their lives. Genevieve and Guy are much more self aware, and both get full, emotional arcs. I’ll say no more, everyone who likes musicals should see this film.
“Aha!” you may cry, “Chazelle has cited that very film as his major influence! Isn’t La La Land just as thematic?” Well, you certainly have a point, but please don’t interrupt me until I’m finished. Certainly, the choice of color palette, the cinematography, and many portions of that ending are swiped right from les parapluies de Cherbourg. The name of Mia’s character in the one act? Genevieve. That circle wipe that stops, then keeps going? Demy. The use of a jazz score? Gershwin, but Michel Legrand really was the one to perfect it on film. There are full scenes swiped from it in La La Land, and Chazelle seems to be kind of embarrassed about it. From a personal friend who broached these similarities with him, this is one of his favorite movies (as well as Casablanca). That’s not to say it’s a bad film— no, steal away! What else do we make art for but to be a reference? And to answer the question on whether the music comes in thematically, well, yes and no.
The Themes of La La Land
Alright, so before we go any further, you should probably have watched La La Land if you don’t want to be spoiled. Below, I will discuss the thematic push behind the film.
First, of course, is dreams. This is made apparent from the opening number— the difficulty of living life for one’s dreams. And this is essentially what’s at stake throughout: will Mia achieve her dreams, and to a lesser extent for some reason, will Seb do the same? This concept is brought forth in Whiplash, Chazelle and Hurwitz’s earlier venture, which makes this reviewer ponder if they are meant to be companion pieces. Whiplash is a much more cynical outing, exploring the selfishness of dreams in a high paced thriller. La La Land, is, essentially, the optimistic fluff. The stakes are never that big, and that’s ok. It is interesting that Mia is not punished for cutting off her connections to other people as much as Miles Teller’s character. She gets her dream, and leaves Seb (I really, really hate this name) behind. He’s sad about it, but all in all more than supportive.
The second theme is less inherent— the death of art. Namely jazz, and Hollywood sensibilities. Seb explains that jazz is lost on young ears. You have to listen to it for the dialogue, which gives a cue for the rest of the film, particularly concerning their relationship. Mia, who claims she hates jazz, once taught how to hear it, finds a way to appreciate it. But other than these two, everyone else seems to be just fine with its fade from popular ears.
Of course, there’s love, but isn’t there always?
Song to Theme
I’ve heard some silly critiques that say Hurwitz’s score is not “hummable.” That is an absolutely useless critique unless you are trying to make popular songs. When you are writing songs for characters, all that matters is you honor the character and the story. Hurwitz’s score is deeply lyrical and rich and his orchestrations for that matter are quintessential. I give him every credit— but thematically, I have a few issues.
Let’s begin with that opening number, Another Day of Sun. I personally really like what this song is saying. It’s an excellent way to delve into the struggle of all these everyday dreamers. As important to the song in a musical film is the way it’s shot. And Chazelle has done his homework, because we begin with Fellini’s opening scene from 8 1/2: a person in bumper to bumper traffic who, through some bout of magic realism, finds a beautiful escape (Guido Anselmi flies up and out, the cast of La La Land break into a musical number). This is a great way to indicate to the audience that their watching an old-style musical, right?
But how does Chazelle shoot it? After celebrating the width of the aspect ratio (dear God, throw a parade why don’t you), we pan along different cars listening to all different kinds of music, some pop, some hip-hop, some classical. Oh! What an excellent way to launch into the death of jazz! Ah, but hold on. We keep panning, and begin to have that sure feeling that, oh no, he’s going to try his hand at the long take. And suddenly everyone, all these different people who from the first minute were shown to have separate tastes in music, are jumping out of their cars and belting jazz music! Is jazz truly dying in the world of this movie? No! It seems to be the heartsong of an entire traffic jam! The idea here is that since we’ve decided this is an old Hollywood musical, you can suspend your belief. Which is all well and good, but largely why I find this more akin to Moulin Rouge! than les parapluies de Cherbourg. “What if they don’t like it?” “Fuck ‘em.” Why on earth not use the music that the people were listening to in that same take? Make a fusion of styles to accurately represent the modern world, and, therein, one of the major struggles for our main characters? What could, and should have been an introduction into the major theme of the movie ended up being sacrificed for nostalgia.
A note on the long take: I think it’s absolutely fun, but unless there’s a good reason behind it, it is only a gimmick, an ‘Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better’ between directors. Alphonso Cuaron has made it his trademark, but you’ll notice he always has a thematic and filmographic reason to use the device. The Spielberg “Oner,” like the ferry scene in Jaws, is always trying to hide in plain sight, without convincing the audience that he is clever, but rather exploring the dialogue with proper attention and depth. Hitchcock, who explored it to its fullest extent in Rope, found it to be cheap and unfulfilling for the rest of his career, and very much regretted using it in the first place. Reel it in, Chazelle, Mendes, and Iñarritu.
As you imagine these problems bleed throughout, at least concerning the other large group number, Someone in the Crowd. The song doesn’t seem to decide whether it’s critical of this ambitious world or not. Is it a joyful celebration of the struggling actor, or a condemnation of the shallow world? The prevailing image is the yet another long take of spinning in the pool, watching the chorus dance around like zombies. But in the following scene, we have an 80’s cover band featuring Seb at one of these parties. Good Lord, what is the real world of this picture? Is it in Mia’s Turner Classic Movie Mind? That could work for the party number, even A Lovely Night (sweet as a song, but clearly the talents the number is given can’t make it spin), but not the opening.
Moreover, John Legend gets a song too, We Could Start a Fire, which clearly delineates popular music from jazz. Why, since the production was openly aware of their choices and the world around them, would they not remain consistent with this theme?
Now, I do give a lot of credit to the cinematography, even in its gimmicky moments. It’s very difficult to shoot chorus numbers in a non stagnant way. Famously Tim Burton cut the wonderful chorus parts from his adaptation of Sweeney Todd, but this in effect made his film work that much better. Chazelle crafts a deft and complete world.
Mia and Seb’s love theme is gorgeous, and a rival to many love themes throughout cinema history. The dance scene in the planetarium is just wonderful. But after a while (and as a composer I absolutely have suffered from this) it’s repeated a little too often. Hurwitz’s jazz arrangements are lovely, particularly Herman’s Habit. Here’s to the Ones who Dream is the only number to really come from a character’s emotions, as stated before, and largely it is the best song in the movie, if preachy. A few lyrical flubs, but we’ll certainly get to that.
That dream ballet at the end is basically a medley of all the songs to come before it, which orchestrally, it’s lovely, but thematically, it’s weird. When we get into sequences of the film repeated we have all the right beats, their love theme and the audition song most prominent. But at the beginning, there are musical mentions of Another Day of Sun and Someone in the Crowd which only serve as musical filler. When a musical theme is assigned to a scene, whenever it is played again, it should have a direct correlation between them.
You’ll notice I left out a rather popular song.
City of Stars is Terrible
The big question that always comes up for a songwriting team is “What is written first, the music or the lyrics?” Friends, we don’t have to ask this question about Hurwitz and his lyricists. We know. It is the music first.
The lyricists of the film are actually fairly well versed in the musical genre, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. They are both composers and lyricists, known for Rent of the year Dear Evan Hansen as well as Dogfight and the Christmas Story musical. This reviewer thinks they are more than competent and have a deservedly rich career ahead of them.
Therefore, it is troubling how many awkward lines sneak into the final film. Theatre can always be changed and edited, but a film is forever. We have some slant rhymes in many songs:
“When they let you down/you get up off the ground”
Another Day of Sun
“Then everybody knows your name/we’re in the fast lane”
Someone in the Crowd
In City of Stars, we have issues of prosody (how syllables and poetry are naturally spoken) and the difference between masculine and feminine rhymes. To illustrate the culprit of prosody, I have put the strong syllables in bold:
City of stars/Are you shining just for me/
City of stars/There’s so much that I can’t see
City of Stars
Repeat those lines back in the as if you’re speaking them, then in the rhythm of the song. Do you feel how they don’t fit together? Rhyme goes beyond words, it’s in the meter as well. An example of how it should be done:
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens/
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
My Favorite Things, The Sound of Music
Feel how they’re different? And now the culprit at the end of the song, the recipient of the masculine/feminine rhyme debacle. A masculine rhyme has the center of the rhyme based on an emphasized last syllable, i.e. Men/Den or Forgot/A Lot. A feminine rhyme puts emphasis on the second to last syllable, i.e. Belly/Smelly. You would never force a masculine and feminine rhyme together, like Foreplay/Today, simply because you never say Today or Foreplay. For each rhyme, the emphasized syllable must fall on an emphasized beat of music, be that at a downbeat or at least on a kind of beat. Not off. That’s when you feel that weirdness. So our culprit in question:
City of stars/Are you shining just for me/
City of stars/You Never shined so brightly
City of Stars
Other than “Me” rhyming with “-ly,” there is really nothing in common with the final couplet. You never say “brightly,” you say “brightly.” These flaws show that the text was smushed in to fit the music, and not composed hand in hand. This juxtaposition ruins the intent of the song.
“What a nitpick!” you must be screaming. “People don’t need to rhyme correctly for it to be good!” And I would say you’re correct if we were talking about popular music, and stuff you can listen to day in and day out, without needing to pick up everything on first listen. But what, I ask you, is the function of rhyming? Clarity. And what, then, is the great function of film language? Clarity. So, in a film, if you’re not doing your due diligence to perfect every facet of being clear to an audience, then, you are doing a disservice the audience and diluting your craft. But don’t take my word from it— living legend Stephen Sondheim quoted lyricist/composer Craig Carnelia in his book Finishing the Hat:
“True rhyming is a necessity in the theater, as a guide for the ear to know what it has just heard. Our language is so complex and difficult, and there are so many words and sounds that mean different things, that it’s confusing enough without using near rhymes that only acquaint the ear with a vowel… [a near rhyme is] not useful to the primary purpose of a lyric, which is to be heard, and it teaches the ear to not trust or to disregard a lyric, to not listen, to simply let the music wash over you.”
Moreover, City of Stars stops the movie still to sing a Falling Slowly wannabe, which never really comes back into play. It could be their love theme but we already have a clear theme in their waltz. The lyrics, on the whole, try and double as generalizations about love and what the characters Mia and Seb are feeling. The song, at least in terms of the movie, is largely a lie. Everyone in Los Angeles is looking for their dreams to come true as dictated in the opening number, but now we also say that everyone is just looking for love. Dreams win, poor Seb.
So, other than a hit love song, it doesn’t really service the movie. We already gleaned they were happy in love from the waltz, and maybe this articulates their thoughts with less subtext, and maybe (though it’s never clear) this is Seb’s love song that he’s testing out with her. Either way, we’re not learning anything.
And then there’s the fact that-
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are… Okay
Alright, alright, they’re absolutely cute together on screen. But in a film that tries so desperately to soar with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, it feels like your college’s club musical. I’m the first in line to claim that it is better to see an actor who can sing over a singer who can act, but goodness. If we’re buckled in for a nostalgia trip, why cast people who cannot tap in a tap number? What a Lovely Night made me long for the actual Singin’ in the Rain. And though this reviewer respects both of their acting abilities in a great way, and loves their work, Emma Stone’s singing voice is rather breathy, and Ryan Gosling is, frankly, flat. Whilst Russel Crowe felt the brunt of the masses for Les Miserables, ol’ Gos gets a pass.
There is the rebuttal that this amateurishness was entirely the point, which is absolutely fair. Most dreamers are amateurish, and only the lucky few make it. But ask yourself seriously, in a world where they casted some of the myriad of amazing singer/dancer/actors who might not have the name recognition of Emma and Ryan, would you have been upset that they gave good performances? Not really.
Is La La Land a musical? Yes, it has songs, but you’ll notice that after the first 20 minutes, there are barely any tunes until the end. This is more of a romance/drama than a complete musical. And that’s wonderful for it. It seems to keep the music as a reference to happy times, and the spiraling out of Mia and Seb’s relationship is done in silence. But when a musical is plotted, that’s when the songs really mean the most. They say Broadway composer Jerry Herman makes his name on production numbers, namely Hello, Dolly!, Mame, and The Best of Times. But go to one of his shows, and you find yourself enraptured in the sad moments, the I’ll be Wearing Ribbons Down My Backs, the If He Walked into My Lifes. The musical has not been explored to its fullest extent, and La La Land has ignited a spotlight. It is dangerous to be represented by a mere pastiche of the past, albeit lovingly and warmly. We must understand that this movie is not the example— rather a doorway. I really enjoy this film, even plan on buying it when it’s available, which is why I’ve thought so deeply about it. Through this lens, we can clarify much about where we are to go. Focus on telling a story with music, telling it surely, honestly, and clearly. There are a myriad of possibilities, and perhaps it’s time to move on from nostalgia and pastiche, and into the forays of tomorrow. Medium, not genre.