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La La Land

Today we have a guest post from my friend Jennifer Johnson, who is a high school English teacher in Idaho and a lover of musicals.  

By Jennifer Johnson

I love musicals. Love them. I see every new musical thing a brave studio produces.

I was so looking forward to La La Land that I strong-armed a friend into braving bad weather in order to catch an early showing.

La La Land begins with a large ensemble number, utilizing a wide variety of singers and dancers. The ensemble presents a believable, multi-cultural spectrum of Los Angeles. It was lovely to experience a variety of faces and musical styles on the screen of a musical; my heart surged with hope that this modern musical would reposition the genre as an inclusive one. After that opening number, however, the human variety disappeared. This welcome variety of voices and bodies vanished. It seemed every African American actor was relegated to the role of jazz musician. The whiteness of La La Land struck me as a Rogers and Hammerstein-era blunder. It is not until the closing number that the full ensemble returns to close the show. Where were they? Why was the ensemble not dancing at the coffee shop? On the movie sets? At the parties? In the jazz clubs? Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are left to carry the dancing themselves, which also turns out to be a mistake.

In addition to musicals, I also love Emma Stone. Her career is so far built upon her girl next-door, BFF, dream squad, skilled lip-syncing attraction. In every role, she appears the friend you’d want by your side to enliven a dreary weekend. La La Land is no different; Emma Stone is appealing. Though she is surrounded by leggier, showgirl level roommates, she has a warm appeal and true acting chops. Early in the film, she auditions for a role by having a one-sided conversation on the phone, in which she breaks up with her married lover.  The scene sucked me in; I felt that break-up moment, and was struck by the skill required to audition quickly and powerfully. As an actress, she won me over.

Ms. Stone, however, is no Debbie Reynolds. The musical elements of La La Land were poorly conceived and executed. The first time we see Stone dance with Gosling, we become acutely aware that a balls out, goofy lip sync in the kitchen does not prepare one to execute choreography as a trained dancer. Poor Emma is all elbows and knees. Dancing is about lines and angles, but Stone cannot execute the purposely graceful angles required of classic ballroom, nor the rhythmic grace of tap. Gosling is the fortunate male lead who gets to hide his rough edges behind a dark suit and, in this specific case, behind his distractingly less graceful partner. As the female lead, Stone, appropriately dressed in an eye-catching yellow dress reminiscent of old Hollywood, cannot hide. The female dancer is meant to be shown off, and to be presented by her partner, which leaves Stone’s incapacity exposed.

I was less distressed over Stone’s breathy, half-voice singing even though she lacks the vocal skill to sell, through song, the emotion required of a musical lead. Stone noticeably struggles in every song, even though the songwriters had mercy on her by providing her with relatively easy tunes. Once again, the vocal numbers were more kindly to Gosling, who manages to winsomely imitate a pianist who can sing a little. Songwriters, Pasek and Paul failed to write a single powerful number on par with the classic musicals of the 50s and 60s. Even Carousel, Roger and Hammerstein’s misogynistic mishap, contains one really sad, belter of a number that leaves the audience weeping. The music in La La Land does not pack the hoped for emotional punch. I was grateful for the oasis of John Legend’s voice in a desert of mediocrity. And then the dancers return to close the show. Hallelujah.

La La Land would have played much better as a classic Hollywood movie. The styling was perfect. The plot was perfect, and the ending! The ending was truthful and emotional. If this was a movie sans music, it would be getting a much better review. The music was fun in a nostalgic way, but poorly executed. There was a good reason Rosemary Clooney sang a ton but did not dance in “White Christmas.” She was not a dancer. So let’s let actors do what they do best: act. We will really only find the triple threat on Broadway, so let’s stop pretending that just anyone can do it.


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Posted in All Reviews, Guest Posts.

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