In Defense of “La La Land”.

[Disclaimer: This blog posting is in no way, shape or form related to anything that may have happened regarding the Academy Awards this year. I fully support that “Moonlight” won and feel that is the correct decision, especially given the fact that “Hidden Figures” was so grossly overlooked.]

By now if you pay any attention whatsoever to the world of cinema, you’ve likely heard of a little film called “La La Land”.  The film has been called by some a “magical love letter to the golden age of Hollywood” (Mark Kermode of The Guardian) and “a film that re-enacts, with rare originality, a classic role for the movie medium—escapist entertainment in troubled times.” (Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal)

The premise is this:

“The story of Mia, an aspiring actress, and Sebastian, a dedicated jazz musician, struggling to make ends meet while pursuing their dreams in a city known for destroying hopes and breaking hearts. With modern day Los Angeles as the backdrop, this musical about everyday life explores what is more important: a once-in-a-lifetime love or the spotlight.”

The film has been received with extremely mixed reviews that tend to range anywhere from “IT’S EVERYTHING” to people who have affectionately renamed it “Bla Bla Land”. So how does a movie find itself the subject of such extremes in the world of reviews? And what is all the fuss (on both sides) REALLY all about?

Here’s the short answer before I share my thoughts:

This movie deals with a number of things. The idea of a musical in film form, the stylings of a more ‘artsy’ film, jazz music, and living life as an artist who’s struggling to create a name or career (or both). All of these things share a commonality: they are attached to real-life scenarios or ideas that people have very, VERY strong feelings about. People who love musicals, people who love art films, jazz music or who are artists who can identify (or think otherwise) about how that lifestyle is portrayed. There are two sides to any argument…but in this case: those sides have very strong and unwavering opinions in most cases!

So, what did I think of the film? I loved it. I saw it at least three times in the theatre and plan to buy it when it’s released digitally to watch many more times.

Was it a perfect film? Of course not. There really is no such thing. But I felt that it accomplished what it set out to do and it did many things extremely well.

For the purposes of my defense, I’m going to work backwards and give you the thoughts I’ve heard from those who didn’t like the film and then present my commentary for your consideration. So, here goes!

1) “Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone aren’t singers.” (See also: “They can’t sing”, “Why didn’t they get someone else to do the singing”, etc.)

Here’s the thing: Ryan and Emma are NOT singers…that is to say, singing is not their profession and not their first talent they are known for. That said: They CAN actually sing. Do they sound ‘trained’, like professional Broadway stars or other pop/rock singers (like Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, John Mayer…note I’m choosing artists who sound as good live as on their albums….)? No. But they have good pitch, they are able to carry the phrase without breathing in the middle of a word and they did not have to be autotuned from here to kingdom come in order to sound good.

Fun fact: If you take a trip back down memory lane and watch some of the classic Hollywood movie-musicals, you’ll note that the stars often were not known for their singing. Fred Astaire, Ginger Rodgers, Gene Kelly, Dick Van Dyke….these are not people that were known as ‘singers’. But they sang in their films, and they did so perfectly adequately. Occasionally, you would find stars who were singers in their own right (Eddie Fischer, Katherine Grayson, Frank Sinatra, etc) but that wasn’t the norm.

“But what about ‘The King and I’, ‘West Side Story’ and ‘My Fair Lady'”, (to name a few), “…they all had some of the voices dubbed over. Specifically, the three leading ladies.”
That is correct. And funnily enough, all three leading ladies were dubbed by the same woman, Marni Nixon, who sadly passed away this year but lent her glorious singing voice to these three major roles, not to mention many others.

Here’s the problem with this argument: All three of these films were adapted from stage musicals and put onto the screen. They were not an original movie-musical created for the screen alone. In this case, you were dealing with a score that was beloved by many already and the producers felt they needed the voice to be what one would expect to hear on the Broadway stage. [Personal side note: I’ve heard some of the reels of Natalie Wood singing some of Maria’s material in WSS and I honestly didn’t think she sounded bad at all. But that’s just me, I guess.]

So, getting back to my point: the original, classic movie-musicals that weren’t adapted from stage productions often employed leading players who weren’t known first and foremost for their singing capabilities.

Let’s define what singing really is, shall we?

sing
siNG/
verb
gerund or present participle: singing

1. make musical sounds with the voice, especially words with a set tune.
(“Bella sang to the baby”)

Obviously, there are other definitions for the word but this is the one that applies here.
Common misconception: the singing voice and the speaking voice are two different things. The reason this is important to note here is that we say someone “can’t sing” but in reality what we mean to say is they “don’t sound like how we feel the singing voice should sound”. In reality, all singing really involves is speaking words on a specific set of pitches set down by the composer(s).* Beyond that, how ‘good’ someone sounds relies heavily on training and the technique achieved from that training.

2) “This film wasn’t really a musical” (See also: “There weren’t enough songs for it to be a musical”, etc)

If you’re comparing this film to Broadway musicals or to films based on Broadway musicals: I guess your point is true. But that also means you missed the point of this film ENTIRELY. This film set out to re-create the nostalgic feel of the golden age movie musicals. Not the ones adapted from stage shows; original, written for the screen movie-musicals. Here are some examples:

“Singin’ In The Rain” (1952)
“Top Hat” (1935)
“The Harvey Girls” (1946)
“Summer Stock” (1950)
“Anchor’s Aweigh” (1945)

Each of these films has lots of music….but only a handful of songs. They aren’t like Broadway musicals which usually have upwards of at least 10, usually more, songs and a handful of reprises. These films focus on the story and have songs and dances interjected here and there. Some have more than others, but the formula is still very different from stage shows that have been adapted to film.

In this way, “La La Land” did exactly the same thing: It has a handful of songs that are relevant, in some way, to the story and some fun choreography interspersed here and there and the composer intelligently weaves key themes from the songs in and out of the underscoring to make the tunes more familiar to us. Which is why those of us who enjoyed classic movie-musicals (like those listed above) really connected to the presentation put forth by “La La Land”…and least, I enjoyed it.

3) “The jazz music in the film isn’t really jazz.” Okay, to be fair: I’m not someone who’s entirely knowledgable about this. But, here’s my thought: while the music may not be as true to jazz as the jazz purists would like, I would argue that this score does have plenty of jazz elements in it. Not just in the actual construction of the tunes but in the orchestration, as well; for example, the composer uses a LOT of vibraphone and upright bass. Both are very common to the jazz language, at least in terms of orchestration. See also: a number of settings for solo trumpet, solo sax, piano/bass/drums…also not uncommon in the jazz world, especially classic jazz. I won’t argue that the construction of the music is actually jazz, but I know it involves some of the chordal elements and gives the illusion of it as such. And to the general public: it opens the door for conversation about the style and the education of what real jazz actually is. Given the state of the classical arts these days, I would think this should be something we embrace in order to get the conversation started rather than bickering and bitching about how it “isn’t real jazz”. Maybe it isn’t, but if it sparks the interest of someone who was previously uninterested then that’s a good thing!

4) My favorite critique is where people like to suggest the film isn’t realistic in regard to the struggles both Mia and Sebastian go through in regard to their separate struggles to ‘make it’ in the entertainment business as well as how those struggles affect their personal lives/relationship(s).

I make my living as a touring musician. Before that, I worked (read: struggled) to make ends meet as a musician/voice coach/conductor in and around my hometown. When I wasn’t on the road, I would work 3, 4, 5, 6+ gigs AT THE SAME TIME just to attempt (usually failing) to make ends meet for myself and then for myself and my spouse. Anyone who is a musician, artist, composer, actor/actress, etc has likely gone through this and, sometimes, even worse struggling to lock down a consistent, well-paying gig. Those who haven’t experienced this: give it time because one day you will.

Having an arts-related career is tough. You audition, submit, apply and then wait. Often, you do these things for many, many different gigs hoping to snag just one. Sometimes, you do all of this while working an entirely different part (or full)-time job, all the while telling yourself that one day you’ll be doing what you love full-time. And the sad reality is: you do this knowing that there is a solid chance you will never, and I do mean never, make it…EVER.

[If you haven’t seen the film, I’m about to reference a few things so go watch it then come back.]

The audition montage of Mia? Yeah, I know actors who saw the movie and reacted strongly because they have literally been in the same position.

The scene where she and Sebastian argue about him being on the road full-time (among other things)? I have personally lived moments very close to that scene.

And the scene where Sebastian finds Mia to tell her she’s booked the biggest audition yet? She has a minor meltdown and reveals that she doesn’t want to go because “what if I’m not good enough” and “maybe I’m not meant to do this” (paraphrasing, but you get the gist). Everyone has those moments in life but artists? We have them ALL THE FUCKING TIME. Even when you have the gig and you’re past the probation period where you can be let go, you still question yourself constantly about whether or not you’re good enough. That’s just how our mindset works.

I cannot personally speak to the struggles of those living in places like Los Angeles and trying to make it in the film industry but my understanding is it isn’t all that different from what I’ve described and I even saw where someone I know wrote (in regard to this film, funnily enough) that the film did a good job of giving a small taste of what that world is like.

[You’ll notice I didn’t address the ‘artsy’ film part. That’s because I really don’t have any authority in that realm because I don’t tend to see many art films, though I’m hoping to change that this year! So, rather than open my mouth and insert my foot entirely: I will graciously accept that those critics may be correct in saying it doesn’t hold to the typical style of an art film. And that’s fine with me. They were going for nostalgic, movie-musical anyway!]

So, what’s the point of all this? The point is to say: give “La La Land” a chance. You may not care for it; that’s fine. You may love it; that’s fine too. But don’t go in expecting a Broadway-style musical filled with a doctoral dissertation on jazz that’s set in an art-film setting with actors who are also grammy winning singers living out a documentary about the struggling artist. Over the top? Yes. But this is how many of the people I hear arguing about the film are acting. No, it doesn’t get everything perfectly correct. But it doesn’t need to. None of those original, classic movie-musicals were all perfectly correct either.

What “La La Land” does get right far outweighs the few things it may gloss over or do incorrectly. Ultimately, it’s a nostalgic throwback to the golden age of cinema where musicals were created specifically for the silver screen that told stories of dreamers, artists, romantics and comics who all yearned for that perfect Hollywood ending.

I’m not telling you how “La La Land” ends. But as someone who identified with so many of the themes/scenarios put forth by the film: I left both overjoyed and overwhelmed by the reality and amazingness that is chasing after your dream and finding your place as a working artist.

Here’s a hint: it doesn’t always play out the way you expect….but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Cheers for now,

d.l.k.

*Footnote about singing/speaking and the approach to a song in a musical:
As someone who often coaches vocalists, I so desperately wish I could explain to you how often I spend my time pulling the singer away from the notes and have them focus first on the text. In musicals (and especially musical theatre), the story is what we’re trying to tell FIRST. Obviously, the hope is that the singer sounds good; but if you’re singing the words on the notes and not bothering to put expression behind it: you might as well be paint drying on a fence for all the emotion I’ll feel toward you. Rather, you should learn the notes, learn the technique but then also ACT the lyrics, adding emotion and feeling to the words that are so important to a story. Sometimes this means sacrificing a ‘pretty’ sound for one that is more raw; sometimes it means speaking a word or two instead of singing the notes on the page. Every scenario is different but you have to be willing to dig in and find out what’s right. In this case, Emma Stone’s performance of “Audition” in this film, to me, is a gold standard example of excellent storytelling through music. She proves she can sing where she needs to (and even belt) but never at the expense of the emotion or the story she’s telling. We see, hear and understand exactly what she’s feeling and the music and it’s beauty are never compromised in the process….but the story gets told and we feel for her in that moment.