It is always a mystery to me why it comes a shock to movie producers that musicals score like Reinaldo at the box office. Director/writer Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is a case in point. London in January is as black and cold as a Victorian chimneysweep so department of no surprises that Curzon Soho was sold out for last night’s showing.
Musicals are how we dream life is supposed to be. Sad? Face the music and dance like Fred and Ginger in Top Hat. Falling in love? Waft round Central Park at twilight in a diaphanous dress like Cyd Charisse in The Bandwagon. Disappointed with the crap life throws at you? Plant both feet wide apart in your highest heels and belt like Mama Rose in Gypsy. Whatever emotion humans feel, the great songwriters of Broadway and Hollywood have already orchestrated it.
Is it any wonder that musicals broke box office records during the Great Depression? We naturally want cinema that takes us into a world where endings are happy and blues are shaken away with song and dance numbers that lift the spirits and gladden the heart. Over Christmas I watched Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin’ in the Rain, The Pirate and The Wizard of Oz in moments when I needed eight bars of bliss.
La La Land does blow a kiss to aficionados of the great Hollywood musicals. There’s a bit of Bandwagon in the flying observatory dance, a nod to Sweet Charity when Emma Stone and her girlfriends sashay through LA, a complete visual steal from Singin’ in the Rain towards the end of the picture and not a little Hairspray in the opening number.
By casting Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as the romantic leads Chazelle has taken an executive decision to go for cute and charming over blinding musical talent. Both can hold a tune and sell a dance but neither could touch the MGM triple threats Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Eleanor Powell, Frank Sinatra or Anne Miller.
I am sure it was a conscious decision to make the singing and dancing in La La Land impulsive and instinctive rather than allowing every number to stop the show and make it difficult to ease back into the story. Personally, I like the artificiality of the golden era musicals when the ridiculously talented stars are allowed to show their chops in one major production number after another.
The musical La La Land reminded me of was Scorsese’s underrated New York New York starring Robert de Niro and Liza Minnelli. This is a story of two creative people trying to balance their relationship with their ambition. New York New York was made in the 1970s and yet Scorsese gave Minnelli a lavish production number that told the audience why her character became a star. Lara Stone needed this in La La Land.
I do have a soft spot for Ryan Gosling. Like Gene Kelly, he has those dimples that we all dote on and can sell a number. Lara Stone’s big Bette Davis eyes are striking but the choreography made her look like Bambi on Ice. The public have been going potty for the dance number where Stone wears a yellow dress and dances with Gosling high above Los Angeles under the stars.
It all started with promise: that classic park bench prelude to a romantic waltz. Then Stone removed her heels and put on a sturdy pair of block-heeled correspondence shoes. It was like Leslie Caron putting on a pair of galoshes to dance the ballet in An American in Paris. All I could hear when watching the number was Craig Revel Horwood drawling ‘leg extensions darling? A disaaaaster’.
My major beef with La La Land was the forgettable songwriting and lyrics. A big Hollywood musical guaranteed genius writing from Rogers and Hart, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein or Irving Berlin. The melodies lingered on long after the songs had ended. I don’t remember a single note from La La Land.
I hope La La Land sees a slew of romantic musicals going into production. The most successful musicals in recent memory for me were the dark, cynical Chicago and the exuberant, camp and knowing Hairspray. Both films subtly sent-up the genre. What I loved about La La Land was that it committed fully to being unashamedly romantic and musical even though there was a huge dry spell in the middle without anyone singing a note.
On reflection, Gosling and Stone could have done with support from ‘second leads’ like Anne Miller and Peter Lawford in the Judy Garland/Fred Astaire classic Easter Parade. The greatest MGM musicals produced by Arthur Freed were a showcase packed full of talent. Nobody really got a look-in apart from the leads in La La Land.
The genius of the old Hollywood studio system was that all of the talent was tested and supported by the best in the business. Can you imagine how many all-time-great musicals Catherine Zeta Jones, Nicole Kidman or Julianne Moore might have made by now had they been in the hands of Freed, choreographer Hemes Pan and vocal coach Kay Thompson?
We know from Strictly Come Dancing that intense training can turn a novice into a pro so it is disappointing if the stars of a movie musical don’t knock the song and dance numbers out of the park. Clearly this hasn’t hurt La La Land at the box office. The film is a very sweet musical but it does not show off the most talented singers and dancers in Hollywood today. Maybe that’s not the point but I so wish it were.