How can you be a revolutionary when you’re such a traditionalist?
The traditionalist being charged here is Sebastian, a jazz pianist who walks the streets of modern day Los Angeles in two-tone wingtips, clinging to the past from head to toe. Played by Ryan Gosling in the new film La La Land, he shrugs off the accusation, which is just as well: the question is really directed at the ambitions of the film itself, an old-fashioned musical attempting to revitalize a form from a bygone era. This question is presented again and again—to a hummable extent. It plays like the recurring theme of the score, an arpeggio of alternating chords swaying back and forth in indecision, as such self-examination is pretty much a requirement for a genre that now demands justification. The movie musical—in the traditional sense, at least—is nearly extinct, with every entry a last gasp of dying breath, applied pressure to check a working pulse. La La Land, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is an attempt at CPR. It pays homage to the classic MGM musical of the 40s and 50s, but aims to update it—or, I guess, revolutionize it—for our times. Chazelle essentially submits his film as proof that the musical is alive and kicking—even as he offers an autopsy of the patient.
An initial fatal blow to the musical is at the heart of La La Land’s plot. Emma Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actor trying to make it big in Hollywood. Her eyes are big enough to catch any twinkle of stardom, though by the time we meet her she’s already close to burnout from the cycle of rejection. In a series of auditions, she does her best to dignify the phony lines on the page, digging deep for the inner truth of the scene—the stuff of Acting 101. This internal process, trained in the doctrines of the Actors Studio, is now the conventional practice. Midcentury innovations in acting completely redefined performance in cinema, as the first generation of Method actors introduced an aesthetic of realism we’ve presently come to expect—a realism entirely toxic to the movie musical. Characters in musicals exist in a world that allows them to break out into song and dance when the moment occasions it. Their lives, for the duration of the number, become a temporary performance, and the acting style giving life to these roles would have to be suitably theatrical. In “No Strings,” the first number in Top Hat (1935), when Fred Astaire is seized by a fit of dancing, he turns his back on his scene partner, instead opening his body to the gaze of the camera. The central relationship here is between dancer and audience, a convention inherited from the theater, where the viewer is an acknowledged presence in the dark. The dance itself is emotion externalized, physicalized—in step with the winking reality of razzle dazzle entertainment, and consonant with the prevailing acting process of its day. Hitchcock notoriously treated his actors like cattle: character motivation was expressed largely through blocking, rather than, say, an actor’s emotional memory. It was a kind of choreography without dance moves. The new school of actors would learn how to express this sort of thing from within.
Perhaps the first sign of Method acting becoming a disruptive agent in the land of the Hollywood musical happened behind the scenes of Guys and Dolls, as Marlon Brando, not much of a song and dance man, would famously butt heads with co-star Frank Sinatra, who objected to the number of takes Brando needed to get it right—not to mention the mumbling line delivery he was often parodied for. But more so than any production trouble, the movie musical would have to reckon with shifting audience tastes once the naturalistic style of acting became dominant. Even choreographer Bob Fosse—who embraced these acting techniques, conjugating them with dance so that every movement was loaded with subtext—had to walk a particular tightrope in his 1972 adaptation of Cabaret, electing to scrap any musical number that spontaneously erupted outside the confines of the club stage. His own All That Jazz (and films like Purple Rain and Once) would also keep its performances strictly diegetic in this tradition. And Chicago, while we’re still on Fosse, addresses the challenge of spontaneous song by re-conceiving the musical numbers as fantasy, existing solely within a character’s head (never mind that this fundamentally misunderstands the source material). The popularity of the performance film, e.g. Saturday Night Fever, Magic Mike, Pitch Perfect, seems to delineate the modern audience’s threshold for elements of a musical: song and dance is an irresistible presence in cinema, but the contrivance of situating it in the middle of a dialogue scene appears to be a dealbreaker. It should be no surprise, then, that the most hospitable shelter for the musical has for many years been the animated film. A character bursting into song seems about as likely as a talking mermaid.
The accomplishment of La La Land is that it manages to be an old-fashioned musical—yes, the characters break out into song and dance—with naturalistic performances in an everyday modern setting. Of course, it’s a heightened world (unlike Chazelle’s black-and-white, low-budget musical debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench): the main characters are both performers and much of the film takes place in the backlot of a Hollywood studio. It’s an old trick. Fred and Ginger often played performers, and the postwar Freed unit at MGM took full advantage of Technicolor with its brashly colorful, exaggerated set design. The artifice is foregrounded. If Gosling and Stone want to step into a little soft shoe, the stage has already been set.
The Gosling character, our other dreamer in the story, embodies another challenge facing the musical. He wants to make the music he plays matter again, which sounds pretty tough considering he plays jazz. The songs populating the classic MGM musical happened to be written by the top songwriters of their day. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Harold Arlen, to name a few, often composed their biggest hits specifically for a show. The popularity of these show tunes began to diverge sharply from the listening tastes of audiences with the arrivals of rhythm & blues, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, hip hop, etc., and composers writing for musicals would be playing catch-up ever since. (Even the Hamilton phenomenon, its rap much closer to Biggie than Desiigner, is a few generations of MCs behind.) The genre would eventually fade into the background noise of a piano bar underneath a highway, the kind of joint where Gosling’s La La Land character plies his talents before he gets fired for daring to play one of his own compositions. That composition becomes the movie’s theme, and the entire score, written by Justin Hurwitz, is an extension of the character’s work: jazz-inflected, romantic, and steeped in nostalgia—thereby limiting the film’s ambition to fully update the musical for our times.
In the wake of the movie musical’s decline, music videos—and the occasional television program (La La Land’s choreographer hails from “Dancing with the Stars”)—presented the most prominent canvas in media for pairing music with some sort of visual expression. The form peaked with Michael Jackson, who, with his unmatched dancing ability, filled the shoes of Fred Astaire, even paying direct tribute to him in his “Smooth Criminal” video, a remake (like much of La La Land) of a scene in Astaire’s The Bandwagon. You can see glimpses of narrative in these videos, sometimes flashes of character. But the evolution of the music video led it further away from the tenets of the musical and instead towards the field of experimental film. Here, the images offer counterpoint to the lyrics, working to encourage multiple readings rather than serve the irreducible deadweight of a story. Released earlier this year, Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album is a telling example. A linear narrative is present in her collection of songs. There’s story development, rising action, a resolution—the makings of a musical are in place, in other words, with pop music’s biggest force at the wheel. But the visual album turned out to be a gallery piece: music videos stitched together by passages of breathy voiceover on top of floating images of nature and distended shadows. Easier to book at Anthology Film Archives than Arclight. One might take this as a rejection of narrative—that the music video hadn’t just been disassociating itself from story all this time, but liberating itself from it.
Truth be told, the musical has always wriggled under the constraints of telling a story. Its musical numbers are its raison d’etre, the dialogue scenes mere filler. While filmmakers could really find any excuse to interrupt the action with a song, the convention is that the story would have to necessitate a musical number—that the moment could no longer be expressed in prosaic dialogue and the scene would be lifted into transcendence with the summoning of a distant melody. La La Land, ever the traditionalist, sticks to this idea. The musicals it honors, however, operated under a distinct governing force: their characters existed in a world without sex. They might have made oblique reference to it, but it was all off-screen, sex just a rumor, thanks to the Hays Code and the presiding mores it reflected. In perhaps cinema’s most ecstatic moment, Gene Kelly kisses his sweetheart goodnight on her doorstep. And instead of being invited in, he heads home in the downpour, walking down the lane, with a happy refrain, etc. Musical numbers at rest, waiting to be sprung at any moment, incubate a certain coiled energy. The burst into song and dance is predicated on a kind of emotional suppression, an inner reserve of deep feeling and—as numbers are commonly understood as a surrogate for love scenes—sexual longing. (This might speak to how the musical, demoted to subculture, found second life within the gay community.) If the classic musicals were set in a prelapsarian world, the characters innocent of original sin, then the basic gravitational law of this world would be upended when the characters were allowed to partake of the forbidden fruit. The sexual revolution—paralleled onscreen by the dissolution of the Hays Code and, of course, Method Acting (premised on the surfacing of latent desires, embodied by the raw sex of Brando)—offered a readily available outlet for pent up romantic feeling, slackening the tightly wound spring ticking inside every musical number.
As La La Land is a modern tale, our couple inevitably become lovers, and unsurprisingly, the film starts to lose its magic after this turn. It idles as a relationship drama, absent any occasion for a song. In an attempt to rekindle the romance, Sebastian surprises Mia with a candlelit dinner, the curtains of his apartment absorbing the neon green radiating from the street. They bicker about the stuff of relationship work—scheduling demands, flagging promises—but what they’re really fighting about is reality. The green curtains, of course, are an unmistakable nod to Vertigo, in the famous scene where Jimmy Stewart beholds the fully realized transformation of a woman into the object of his obsession. Love, Chazelle suggests, is an unrealistic projection of someone else’s fantasy. The lovers part, which nicely sets up the finale (lifted straight from An American In Paris): an extended ballet visualizing a hypothetical sequence of things turning out differently—more happily. Here, the film steps into its dancing shoes and becomes full-fledged fantasy: this is Chazelle himself breaking out into song. The sequence is dazzling, joyous, but also full of ache and yearning as it rehabilitates the reality it echoes at every turn. This yearning, the secret heart of every musical, is what returns the film back to life. It’s clear that the couple are meant to be together, that the love between them is not unrequited—only unconsummated. Because that’s where the musical lives.
When the film awakens from the dream, our couple exchange a look. She’s moved on. He has, too. And the world between them, alas, has changed. The movie musical. It was fun while it lasted.