By Martin Shore
Hollywood’s not like it used to be. Gone are the huge, hot-stepping superstars like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. The hype has it that La La Land is set to change this, paving the way for musical theatre to reappear in our cinemas.
For me the critical adoration is not entirely deserved, but La La Land certainly had its moments. The relationship between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling was more grounded than you’d expect in the genre; the soundtrack is woven nicely throughout the plot; and characters don’t seem too out of place leaping into song.
Though a perfectly enjoyable film, La La Land is a short on innovation. The movie is little more than a simple nostalgia trip for the fifties and the fancy feet of Fred Astaire. Amidst the references to Singin’ in the Rain, Casablanca and Rebel Without a Cause, the film has nothing new to offer.
Damien Chazelle’s screenplay does little to rework rom-com conventions, leaving us with a cookie-cutter plot: a) boy meets girl b) they gradually fall in love c) boy upsets girl d) they reconcile. More critically, the musical numbers were instantly forgettable aside from stand-out track ‘City of Stars’. The vocals do little to help matters. Gosling’s gravelly tones are perfect for neon-soaked thrill-rides like Drive; he’s less successful as jazzed-up heart-throb Seb.
It’s a shame, given the obvious talent involved. Chazelle seemed like an obvious choice to recraft the movie musical – the path to La La Land was tinged with music-driven films like the brutally brilliant Whiplash. Though that film showcased Chazelle as a master of tension and intense drama, he is less at home in the genre conventions of a classically-styled musical.
Then there’s the fact that despite La La Land’s awards-success, many movie musicals have fared less well. Take the cinematic adaptation of Les Miserables, often dismissed by theatregoers as a shoddy attempt to emulate the stage show. These risky stage-to-screen adaptations have most likely turned directors off to the possibility of reviving the musical film tradition. Why risk it when you can make the next sci-fi or action blockbuster?
Perhaps future film-makers will learn from La La Land’s mistakes. To my mind the film was light on large-scale song-and-dance numbers. There should be less long sections of dialogue and character-building and more memorable musical numbers. Future directors should take a leaf from Baz Lurhman’s book and aim to equal Moulin Rouge’s bright colours, massive show dances and melodramatic exchanges. The opening song of La La Land is full of vibrant colour; sustaining this tone throughout would make a stronger case for the rebirth of the Hollywood musical.
Is La La Land the best model for a new generation of Hollywood musicals? Perhaps not, but ultimately box office statistics and awards’ season success will decide. The film has already hoovered up a record number of Golden Globes along with 14 Oscar nominations. If it is as successful as everyone has predicted, it’s likely future films will seek to cash in on its success. So perhaps don’t shelve the tap shoes quite yet. Though La La Land is a flawed reworking of classic Hollywood, we’re likely to be seeing a lot more of its ilk in the future.
Photograph: Dale Robinette