Does La La Land rethink the Hollywood musical?

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“Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is an especially self-conscious Hollywood musical that seems to thrive on the tension between moments of incongruity and harmony”  

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In the run-up to this year’s Oscar ceremony, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land has become the stand out film of the season with fourteen nominations in total, including best picture, best director best screenplay, best actress and best actor. The film is an especially self-conscious Hollywood musical that seems to thrive on the tension between moments of incongruity and harmony. There is the thrill of incongruity as people suddenly (but also gradually) break into song and dance, departing from certain prevailing codes of everyday behaviour they might otherwise adhere to. And then there is the pleasure as music and movement come together harmoniously on screen, creating patterns of mesmerising synchronisation.

We might say that all screen musicals negotiate this tension, offering rupture and resolution as they make the incongruous harmonious. The opening sequence of La La Land certainly provides an immediate illustration of the tendency as it features traffic-jammed drivers spontaneously exiting their vehicles and using them as elaborate platforms for collective song and dance, all captured in unbroken travelling shots that serve to complete the intoxicating seamlessness of this extraordinary freeway disruption. 

That energetic opening sequence might be regarded as an almost standard convention of the Hollywood musical, featuring professional dancers and exhibiting the poise, precision and finesse that can only be achieved through assured choreography and years of training. Elsewhere, however, a different kind of spectacle is offered as Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone step away from their established personas to take on the intense demands of singing, dancing and playing. While it should be noted that neither actor is entirely unfamiliar with these skills – Stone recently played the stage part of Sally Bowles in Cabaret, for example, and Gosling is a member of indie rock band Dead Man’s Bones – their roles in La La Land nevertheless exist outside of their previously-defined screen repertoires. 

Part of the pleasure in watching their performance involves an appreciation of the sheer effort required in their learning new skills with considerable success. Indeed, although the central pair proves highly accomplished, the film doesn’t add gloss to their authentic talents in moments such as Stone singing or Gosling playing piano in live takes. (This might bring to mind Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables of 2012, for which all vocals were recorded live on set, though Chazelle’s use is far more selective and certainly doesn’t risk any equivalent to Russell Crowe’s notorious tuning difficulties in Les Miserables.)

And, of course, they dance. There is a particular joy in watching non-expert dancers produce a slightly looser but nonetheless carefully fluent series of moves, shapes and rhythms. Perhaps it is because Stone and Gosling dance so generously together, or perhaps it is because their lack of finessed perfection reminds us of their effort, making visible their physical achievement in every step. That kind of recognition draws certain parallels with television shows like Strictly Come Dancing, Dancing with the Stars and their numerous global incarnations, which celebrate the often considerable accomplishments of trained amateur dancers as they master complex and demanding routines. Given the international popularity of these shows, La La Land is well-timed, capitalising not only upon viewer popularity but also reaching an audience that is very familiar with the task of appraising and appreciating the merits of non-professional dance. The film rewards that critical awareness and capitalises upon a now-prevalent concept of authentic performance that has enjoyed a significant revival in the genre of contemporary ‘reality’ television. With Stone and Gosling, as with the best ‘reality’ television performances, the incongruity of non-expert dancers dancing falls away, replaced by the harmonious form of the dance itself. 

There is no doubt that La La Land pays an especially fond homage to any number of past Hollywood musicals and, indeed, bygone Hollywood in general. Nevertheless, even as it looks back, the film seems to reach towards a relatively new audience appetite for authentic or non-expert performance, celebrating the onscreen distinction between the partnership of Gosling and Stone compared to, for example, Astaire and Rogers (and I think I spotted Stone taking her heels off to dance, whereas Rogers infamously had to perform complex dance routines ‘backwards in high heels’).  If the success of Stone and Gosling’s performances involves the retention of a certain rawness, then it is possible to re-evaluate the more polished sequences within the film in comparison.

The opening traffic jam sequence was almost cut from the picture and it is not difficult to see how its tight precision might struggle to balance against the more grounded aesthetic of other numbers. Likewise, a later sequence in an observatory literally takes the duo above the clouds and, in the process, seems to leave behind the pursuit of realism that comes to characterise the director’s efforts elsewhere in the film. We might find it a touch ironic that, as Stone and Gosling’s authentic performances become the harmonious centre of La La Land, these more polished routines should register as the more incongruous elements, out of step with the achievements of the film as whole.

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