How do you solve a problem like La La Land? On Tuesday, the film confirmed its status as the Best Picture frontrunner, racking up 14 Oscar nominations to accompany its record-setting seven Golden Globe Awards. Whether the musical deserves an awards-season sweep has become a major point of contention among critics, fans, and the Hollywood community. Because La La Land breezed into theaters on a wave of near-universal praise from last fall’s film festivals, it was immediately a prime target for backlash — and if you’ve been following the conversation, you may already be exhausted by the back-and-forth between critics who find the film dazzling or shallow, a delightful fantasy or a whitewashed nostalgia trap. To sidestep the debate (which got heated enough to inspire an SNL skit this weekend), the people who made La La Land putting forth their own awards-season narrative: Everyone who made La La Land took an incredible risk on the film. Director Damien Chazelle spent years trying to get it financed, Ryan Gosling learned jazz piano, and he and Emma Stone went to dance boot camp — all for a project that could easily have flopped because it’s a musical. In one of his Golden Globe speeches earlier in January, Chazelle thanked Lionsgate “for taking the gamble, and for believing that an audience for a movie like this does exist.”
As much as I enjoyed La La Land, that story is starting to irk me. For one thing, a love letter to Hollywood starring two of its most bankable actors, directed by a rising young Oscar nominee, doesn’t score nearly as high on the “risky” scale as awards-season competitors like Moonlight and Loving, which tell challenging stories with lesser-known casts and budgets that are fraction of the modest $30 million budget for La La Land. Moreover, I think La La Land plays it far too safe when it comes to embracing the musical genre. Chazelle gets a lot of the details right — and brings the house down in the last 20 minutes — but for most of the film, he fails to do the one thing that truly defines a musical: tell a story through song.
Most Broadway and movie musicals follow the same basic guidelines for when and how songs appear. There’s usually an opening number that defines the world and characters, like “All That Jazz” from Chicago, “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from Oklahoma! and “New York, New York” from On the Town. Then the main characters introduce themselves; these are known as “I want” or “I am” songs, and classic examples include “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from My Fair Lady, “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. After the characters and themes are established, songs are used to move the plot forward and clue the audience in to what the characters are thinking. These aren’t hard and fast rules — Singin’ in the Rain, for example, breaks them all — but the takeaway is that the key moments in a musical should take place during musical numbers.
Watch a scene from ‘La La Land:’
But that’s not how Chazelle approaches La La Land. The film does have a big opening number (“Another Day of Sun”) that establishes a music-filled present-day Los Angeles, but the song doesn’t connect to the larger plot and offers only a passing glance at the main characters. (Chazelle has said that he considered cutting it to get to the story faster.) After the song is done, the film separately introduces Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling). The next musical number, “Someone in the Crowd,” is sung by Mia’s three roommates — characters we never see again — and then by a chorus at the party they attend. Then Mia and Sebastian, who have encountered each other twice now, finally meet during another party scene. Afterwards, as they each try to find their cars, they sing a flirty song — more like half a song, really — about how they don’t care for each other at all (“A Lovely Night”).
All of which is to say: The audience doesn’t hear the characters sing, or see them dance, until the film’s third song. At that point, Mia and Sebastian have had plenty of screen time, but the musical seems to be happening around them, at the edges of the film, rather than unfolding with the main characters at the center. Even “A Lovely Night” doesn’t further their story; it’s really just a button on the cute meeting party scene that already happened (which may be why the song is so short).
Why does Chazelle go so long without allowing his main characters to sing? The director explained that choice in an interview with Vulture about the first party scene. “Emma really lets this number dance around her,” he said. “We were saving our ammo for a duet that comes later with Ryan. We didn’t want to give away too much — like how you wait before you really see the shark in Jaws.”
By comparing Gosling and Stone’s singing and dancing to the shark in Jaws, Chazelle seems to admit that he views La La Land’s musical numbers as a special effect, rather than the main thrust of the story. And that plays out in the way he structures the film: As the story unfolds, the songs offer us a little something extra, a melodic chaser for Mia and Sebastian’s scenes. At very few points, though, do La La Land’s songs carry the film.
This is an extremely different approach from that of the classic films that inspired La La Land. In musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz (both of which Chazelle has cited as influences), song and dance are more than a gimmick; they’re the language through which the story is told. Think about how thinly sketched the character of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz would seem without Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” or how much heart and humor would disappear from Singin’ in the Rain if the characters talked more and danced less. It’s just as true for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the 1964 French musical to which La La Land is most often compared, which is entirely set to music and sung.
It almost feels like Chazelle was trying to have it both ways — to make a musical that wasn’t too much of a musical. You can also see him hedging his bets with his collaborators, choosing jazz composer Justin Hurwitz over any number of Broadway songwriters (though he wisely hired Tony nominees Benj Pasek and Justin Paul as lyricists), and casting lead actors who don’t identify themselves as singers or dancers. (John Legend does show up in a small role, but Chazelle keeps his considerable talent in the background, so as not to upstage Gosling.) As the director told People, “What’s so great about a musical is — when it works — the genre has the potential for emotion that’s unmatched by any other. But when it doesn’t, there is nothing as embarrassing.”
The thing is that making a musical requires the risk of embarrassment: The willingness to put it all out there, to shoot for the moon and risk falling flat, is absolutely necessary. When Chazelle does take that leap, and let the songs carry his story — when the characters fall in love during a magical waltz at Griffith Observatory, or when Mia bares her soul during her audition song — the movie soars. And the final dream ballet is a masterstroke of storytelling, a portrait of nostalgia and regret that’s both funny and profoundly sad — the kind of scene that can be uniquely accomplished through song.
If only all of La La Land had the conviction of its final act. That audition song in the second half of the movie, “The Fools Who Dream,” tells the audience more about Mia in three minutes than we learned in the previous 90 minutes. In the spirit of La La Land’s dream ballet, imagine an alternate version of the film that was made of such moments: one in which Sebastian conveys his passion for jazz through dancing instead of grumbling, and Mia’s hope and heartbreak are worn on her sleeve from the very beginning of the film — musical that’s not afraid to be a musical.
And honestly, are musicals even so “risky” anymore? In 2016, four musicals were performed on network television, Beyoncé debuted an album in the form of a movie, and a Broadway cast album hit No. 3 on the Billboard charts. Granted, original musicals are a tough sell, but so is anything original in the contemporary entertainment world. As much as we think of the musical as old-fashioned, it’s a genre that still speaks to people. A riskier version of La La Land would have fully embraced that genre and might have had more to say.
Get an inside look at how the world of ‘La La Land’ was built: