La La Land Is Not A Movie Musical — So Stop Saying It Is One

Photo: Courtesy of Lionsgate.
Let us all admit that La La Land is a divisive film. Even though it broke records Sunday night at the Golden Globes, the film is not universally adored.

The New Yorker
published two reviews of the Ryan Gosling vehicle, one of which approached scathing (for this, I give thanks to Richard Brody to giving a voice to the opposition.) Others have critiqued it for its lack of diversity, especially for a film that focuses so heavily on jazz music. Some have cried Manic Pixie Dream Boy on Gosling's portrayal of musician Sebastian. These critiques have their own — very valid — arguments. But I take personal offense at the so-called movie musical, namely because it took the dreamy, romantic quality of a musical, slapped it atop two box office stars, and called it a day. La La Land enjoys the fruits of musical theater without sacrificing at its altar.
The film's main offense is in its casting. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are charming actors. Neither are singers. When Stone appeared in Cabaret on Broadway, little was said of the actress's voice. (In fact, The New York Times noted that Michelle Williams, who is also notably not a singer, had a better voice than Stone.) Gosling, who was once a member of The Mickey Mouse Club, does not share the vocal chops of his peers (like, say, Justin Timberlake.) In La La Land, Stone and Gosling are serviceable singers, but serviceable should not be acceptable in 2017. The film claims to pay tribute to movie musicals of yore, but the performers don't match the multi-talented figures of old Hollywood. According to a profile in The Hollywood Reporter, Director Damien Chazelle cited Singin' in the Rain as inspiration for the 2016 darling. But Emma Stone is no Debbie Reynolds. To boot, the two aren't dancers, either. (Ryan Gosling is also not really a piano player, but I won't get into that. Allegedly, he played his own pieces in the film, which, erm, sure.) When Stone accepted the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Comedy, she insinuated that, hey, all that toe-tapping was not easy. "And [thanks to] Mandy Moore, our choreographer, for your brilliance, and your patience," Stone said. I'm sure patience was needed in this situation because — I'll say it again with feeling — Stone is not a dancer.

The film claims to be a modern day musical. Stone called this a "radical notion" in her speech. Chazelle called it "brazenly uncommercial," and The Hollywood Reporter declared the genre "extinct." Nothing about a musical is brazen or radical. (Actually, if you want to see something brazen and radical in the musical theater canon, look to Hamilton, which is sure to someday become a film.) What is insane about this particular musical is that it deigned to employ non-musical people but still herald itself a hero of musical theater. To be clear, I am aware that the casting of Stone and Gosling was likely an effort to sell tickets. But to Chazelle, Hollywood, studio execs — whomever is listening — can we please find a way to sell musicals that isn't employing non-musical talent? There are hundreds of actors in the world who train specifically for this genre. Why can we not employ these people? There must be a way. In late 2016, Kendall Jenner came under fire for pretending to be a ballerina in a photoshoot. Many protested that ballerinas strive their entire lives to be noticed. When Jenner so casually steps into a usually hard-earned role, it belittles the work of dancers. I argue that La La Land makes the same offense. Why is is that when Kendall Jenner dons ballet shoes and pretends to be a ballerina, we are allowed to take arms, but when Ryan Gosling warbles a few half-hearted notes, we rejoice? La La Land touts itself as a love letter to movie musicals, but it fails to honor the memory of films like Singing In The Rain and West Side Story through its casting choices. The city may be full of stars, but they can't execute a pirouette.

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