When La La Land came out last year, many people lauded the film for reviving the movie musical. While I enjoyed La La Land, and loved the opening scene, the more I thought about it, the more I felt that La La Land does not really represent a way to revive the movie musical. Quite the contrary. I intend to argue that the influence of La La Land will only kill the movie musical and consign it to a permanent place of history.
There are many smaller reasons for that, but they are all symptoms of a larger problem: a fear of change.
Oh, before I go on, I want to define the term diagesis in movies. When people talk about diagesis in film, they mean things that exist within the narrative and world of the film. For example, if Richard Dreyfus in Jaws had said, “The shark is coming! I can hear the John Williams soundtrack in the background!” we would all laugh. We know, without being taught, that the characters in the film can’t hear the film score. Film scores are non-diagetic.
Musicals talk about diagetic musical numbers and non-diagetic musical numbers. A diagetic musical number would be a musical number like Mein Herr in Cabaret. Liza Minelli musical number is literal, not symbolic, because she is literally on a literal stage in a literal cabaret where she works in the movie.
A non-diagetic musical number would be a musical number like We Both Reached For the Gun from Chicago. This musical number does not take place in the narrative of the story; it symbolizes the way Buddy Love controls both Roxie Hart and the media.
Hat tip to Lindsay Ellis on Youtube for schooling me on the term!
So, while there isn’t necessarily a clear line between the two, most musical numbers are considered non-diagetic, symbolic of an idea or event rather than something that actually happens in the narrative. Damien Chazelle, the director of La La Land, uses the term throughout the commentary for the film.
So, I want to talk about the reason why La La Land will kill the movie musical, rather than save it.
1 Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
I love both these actors, just not as musical stars. Their dancing and singing is adequate, but certainly no more than that. They certainly are not the best that the filmmakers could have found. There are plenty of talented actors who are triple threat (great singers, dancers, and actors) but they are probably unknown. I understand that it is hard enough to make a movie musical (though not as hard as people seem to think) but I also think that it is a failing for the movie, especially as far as Emma Stone is concerned. We see several other actresses in La La Land who are clearly better singers and dancers than Emma Stone. But it would have been a risk to cast them as the lead.
2 The subject matter of the musical numbers.
Most of the songs are about the dream of making it in Hollywood. They are fine, and the first song is wonderful, but they are very limited in scope. They do not push the genre into uncharted territory and invite future filmmakers to tell different kinds of stories through song. If movie musicals are to survive, they must evolve to tell different kinds of stories.
3 The style of the music.
The music is good, don’t get me wrong, but it does feel like something out of the golden age of movie musicals. This is especially true in the song “A Lovely Night,” which would easily feel at home in a Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire musical. And that’s a bad thing.
This is where I start talking about Hamilton. La La Land has the misfortune to come out in the year that Hamilton took the world by storm, and while the subject matter of Hamilton is very, very, safe (the Founding Fathers) the show takes some risks in its music, and that (coupled with the greatest musical lyrics I have ever heard) makes it a game changer. I thought I had outgrown musicals but Hamilton changed my mind. Think about it. In the same year I heard “A Lovely Night,” I also heard this.
I haven’t listened to musicals in the past ten years, but I haven’t heard a lot of rap battles in them. This isn’t just a gimmick. It actually makes sense for what is going on with the characters and the story as a whole.
La La Land had the opportunity to take risks with the music, but they decidedly did not.
4 The tone of the musical numbers
Not only do the musical numbers not take any risks in the style of music, it also doesn’t take any risks with the tone. The tone of all the musical numbers is, for the most part, happy, cheerful, and dreamy.
When I first saw the film, I was frustrated at the fact that the movie forgets that it is a musical about halfway through the film, when Emma and Ryan’s relationship begins to falter. The only song is a diagetic song with John Legend’s band.
The music only comes back when Emma Stone goes to audition for the film that will be her big break as an actress. I realized after the music came back that the music is meant to express happiness, cheer, and dreams. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that is a very limited view of what music can do.
Here’s what I mean. When Emma Stone breaks up with Ryan Gosling, she does not have a break up song. In musicals, characters can, and frequently do, break up with each other in song.
Or for a more recent example, look at Hamilton. It’s not exactly a breakup song, because Eliza stays married to Alexander, but the song expresses the idea that, in a very real way, their marriage is over.
Movies have had musical numbers about more serious subjects before, largely because they would transfer Broadway musicals to the screen. Watch West Side Story for examples of music being used to tell darker story beats.
5 Backward Looking
A central theme in La La Land is nostalgia for the past. Emma Stone works outside the window where Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman filmed Casablanca and talks about her love of old movies. Similarly, Ryan Gosling is obsessed with saving jazz from obsolescence. The problem is that La La Land ties the musical numbers to the days of Hollywood old. This is done through the story, with the old fashioned story of a girl trying to make it in Hollywood, as well as the overall sense of nostalgia. If movie musicals is a relic of Hollywood past, how can they survive in the present?
Just as importantly, the images of the film are filled to the brim with references to old Hollywood movies. Here are some.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with an homage. They can be good. But the visuals and the choreography are rooted in the past. Even the ballet dream sequence at the end is full of references to the classic Hollywood lore.
Contrast this with Moulin Rouge.
Now, I get really annoyed when people talk about how La La Land resurrected the movie musical. That is wrong. Moulin Rouge revived the movie musical. I was in college when that movie came out, and holy shit did people love that film. I remember one of my friends telling me she tried to force her boyfriend to sing Come What May from that movie, and neither one of them could sing. This film, coupled with Chicago a year later, brought back the musical from extinction.
I am not a fan of Moulin Rouge, but in my opinion, was a far, far more daring film than La La Land. Moulin Rouge had a greater sense of fantasy that I cannot say I have seen in a film before. And here is the thing. The fantasy element is partly what made this film works.
I recently talked to a woman who said that she heard that Millennials tend to be more open minded about opera than one would expect, mostly because we grew up with music videos. That is part of the reason Moulin Rouge works so well.
looks a little bit like this.
This made it easy for young people to understand what Moulin Rouge was doing in the musical numbers. Plus, it was a unique, modern visual style. Moulin Rouge would never have been made during the golden age of movie musicals. The audience at the time would not have accepted it. But for people who grew up watching Madonna and Michael Jackson videos on MTV, this style is more accessible.
La La Land lacks Baz Lurhman’s daring. Instead, he roots his vision for the musical number firmly in the past.
As if that wasn’t problematic enough, he gives John Legend the opportunity to sum up the fundamental flaw with this movie.
“You’re so obsessed with Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk—these guys were revolutionaries. How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You’re holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”
La La Land is holding onto the film language of the past. It had the opportunity to expand it. He could have told a new kind of story, with modern music and with innovative visuals and choreography that would challenge people’s assumptions of what a movie musical could be. It does not do that. If movie musicals try to model themselves on La La Land, they will find a limited range of stories to tell, music that only a niche population listens to, and a stagnant film language. None of that will help the movie musical make a comeback. By holding onto movie musicals past, La La Land ultimately denies them a place in film’s future.