The theatre dims and the end credits start to roll on what most assume will be the best picture winner at this year’s 89th Academy Awards ceremony on February 26th. I’m not alone in saying that La La Land was my most anticipated movie of 2016. I went into the theatre sure that it would be my favorite movie of the year. Better than Stars Wars!
And yet at the end all I can think about is the singing – and not because it was good – it just wasn’t up to par. Is there a precedent? The cast of Chicago (2002) were passable, Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman weren’t trained singers in Moulin Rouge! (2001), but they sounded okay most of the time. Russell Crowe aside, Hugh Jackman was alright in Les Miserables (2012), even if he missed some of the high notes. Depending on your enjoyment of extreme close-up and snotty crying (which the Academy goes bananas for) Anne Hathaway killed it in the same flick.
Even in the classic and untouchable musicals of the golden age of Hollywood, actors and actresses were rarely ripped off Broadway. They sang their pieces to the best of their ability and if that ability was found lacking, they were dubbed over. Don’t believe me? Check out the work of Marni Nixon (dubbed Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady), Jo Ann Greer (dubbed Rita Hayworth in Affair in Trinidad), Betty Noyes (dubbed two of Debbie Reynold’s Singin’ in the Rain performances), Annette Warren (dubbed Ava Gardener in Showboat), and Bill Lee (dubbed Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music), to name a few. They were called ghost singers and they acted similar to stunt doubles. Painstakingly chosen to match the voice they were mimicking, the goal was to provide as little trace as possible of their presence.
So what’s the issue?
The issue is what La La Land stands for and purports to be. It’s not Baz Luhrmann’s pop fever dream and it isn’t Tom Hooper’s gritty examination of how close a camera can get to an actor or actress’s face without visible discomfort. It’s an ode to Hollywood – to old Hollywood – and to musicals where the singing was, fundamentally, real.
This matters because song is how characters in a musical communicate vulnerability while establishing the same strength (or weakness) that will aid them in overcoming it (or succumbing to it) in the end. It is a narrative device that develops and sustains characterization. By casting big names and pretty faces instead of voices that are fluent in musical nuance, we miss the point of bursting into song entirely. It becomes a storytelling crutch.
For example, Anne Hathaway’s face is a runny mess by the end of her take on I Dreamed a Dream in Les Miserables. She’s been crying so hard that some lyrics have been missed, others choked out inaudibly, and some scream-sung. On the other hand, Patti LuPone’s original version of the same song portrays the same passion and raw emotion while remaining in complete control. It propels the music, lyrics, and their message above the needs and wants of the character and in doing so establishes her altruism and underlines the sacrifice that she has made. It’s much more raw when those things are not on the surface, like in Hathaway’s performance, but hovering just underneath instead. In her interpretation of the same song during the 25th Anniversary Concert, Lea Salonga hits a similar note. She’s more clearly emotional than LuPone, but again remains controlled and allows the music and lyrics to do the heavy lifting. It’s a matter of knowing when to defer and when the music is enough.
When you employ sub-par singers for a movie that involves a heavy dose of singing, music becomes a crutch: a musical substitute for real emotion. It gives us a cue: Look! I am singing! Feel something! When you employ good singers with a few less Hollywood credentials, the music stands for itself. It’s not just a movie with music, it’s a real musical. The same can be said for over-the-top scores.
Take the scene in which Emma Stone’s character lands her big audition – her moment. We are meant to believe that she deserves it and that she has earned it, which is impossible when we have never seen that talent to begin with, implicitly or explicitly. We’ve just seen another Hollywood icon going through the motions of “inspiration” – crooning out a ballad that leaves you itching to check YouTube for the improved version. The camera emphasizes this by cutting away every time Mia’s artistic genius presents itself. It feels hollow. The music isn’t enough and neither is she.
We need to stop relying on Hollywood star power to outshine talent. As mesmerizing and impressive as it is that Ryan Gosling learned to play the piano, that both he and Emma Stone learned to dance, and that some of the performances were live, it just doesn’t cut it. Talented actors as they both are, talented singers they are not – and settling for their performances isn’t raw or realistic, it is a cop-out. It’s another instance of Hollywood patting itself on the back: look at us in this movie, these somebodies pretending to be nobodies! It’s aloof, unachievable, and dreamlike. Instead of a masterpiece, it becomes piece of escapism strewn fancy set pieces and musical numbers with no substance or truth to support them. It is as wooden and fabricated as the cardboard cut-outs Stone and Gosling dance through in the final scenes. It doesn’t represent a true thirst and yearning for success and fame in the way it claims to – because it isn’t brave enough to make that leap itself.
And yet, La La Land is mesmerizing. It’s beautifully shot and edited. The set design is out of this word and the costumes are dazzling. It’s imaginative and the acting is fantastic. It makes you root for the characters by sheer power of visual spectacle. As Stone steps up for her audition, I am not thinking of how the actress herself probably didn’t have the same experience – not this time anyway. It was a good movie, it just wasn’t a brave movie – and so it stops short of greatness. It’s arty flesh covers a vacant interior, where City of Stars can ring true only to its occupants. We as viewers remain outside of it, with no entry point.
Take, as a final example, the end scene: Mia and Sebastian twirl through the life they might have had – it’s the most emotional part of the movie, I was sucked in entirely. It is impeccably scored, orchestrated so that the melody is passed among the orchestra, taking its cue from jazz while emulating the old Hollywood musical form. It doesn’t rely on a big brass section like many of it’s contemporaries. It’s powerful – and it doesn’t include any singing. It doesn’t have to.
La La Land is going to sweep the Oscars this year – and its unclear whether it would have done so without the two leads at the helm – with true, auditioned vocal talent instead of Hollywood’s head boy and girl. I just wish that the filmmakers had made a choice: L.A. without the la la or the la la without the L.A. Either of these options would have made this film, in my opinion, truly great.
What did you think of La La Land? Let me know in the comments below.
La La Land was directed by Damien Chazelle. It stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. For more details and credits, see La La Land’s IMDB entry.