Film Musicals: La La Land Vs…

La La Land (2016) has scored for itself six Golden Globes and has been nominated for a bunch of Oscars which it looks on track to winning too.

The thing is no matter how beautiful this film looks, or how passably melodic the songs are, it still looks like a film that has only gotten so far because of Hollywood’s undying penchant for sucking its own dick.

To be sure, La La Land is a beautifully shot film. Like visually – stunning. Just beautiful. The use of primary colours popped and the panoramic shots of LA were breathtakingly beautiful. The use of primary colours as a motif for fantasy and the blending of the colours into more drab and realist tones also a subtle touch to show the collision between fantasy and reality.

BUT even the well-publicised news of Ryan Gosling spending 3 months learning how to play the piano so he could do the piano bits himself, is not enough to distract from the mediocre singing from the two leads that often left me cringing in my seat waiting for the songs to be over.

The fact of the matter is that there are so many other films that have focused on similar themes and done so in a more streamlined, more succinct manner.

The two main lines of tension in La La Land is firstly, the struggle to straddle the line between being true to yourself and your artistic vision versus selling out in order to become famous and make a living from commercializing your art; and secondly, how the romancing of one’s art can get in the way of the romance between two people.

With regards to these two lines of narrative tension being perfectly intertwined and balanced in a single narrative that works, we can look back 40 years to Martin Scorsese’s New York New York (1977). There you had a real powerhouse, Liza Minnelli, to belt out the title song.

You also had the dramatic use of music/art as the very thing that drives a wedge between the couple (Liza Minnelli as Francine Evans & Robert De Niro as Jimmy Doyle), such that you really felt the tragedy of the ending where even after both parties have made it (Jimmy with his night club & Francine with her successful singing career), the healthiest thing they both could do for the sake of their own sanity was to stay far away from each other.

(4.38 onward)

Granted that at 2hrs 43mins, the film can feel a little overlong but it tracks their relationship from attraction to marriage, pregnancy and divorce, blending in the developments of their respective musical careers at every step of the way.

Another film that uses the romance between a man and a woman to talk about musicians and the music industry is the 2014 film, Begin Again, starring Adam Levine and Kiera Knightly. In Begin Again, a musician couple – where one half represented the indie music scene and the other, whatever it took to become a commercial success – function as a stand-in for a story that is about more than just a girl in love with a boy.

It is another narrative that ends in the eventual dissolution of the romance between the two lovers. Personally, I felt these two films were more succinct than La La Land because as I was watching La La Land, I kept asking myself why an actress and a jazz musician? What’s the connection there? Worse still, what’s the conflict there? The conflict always seemed more personal, in a way that was completely unrelated to their art, than professional or career-driven because when they finally meet with success in the end, there was nothing concrete that prevented them from being together other than the fact that they gave up too early on each other instead of sticking it out to the very end.

The thing about New York New York and Begin Again is that the male and female leads are both musicians and there’s a real conflict of professional ideals mixed in with the romantic hardships each couple faces that eventually prevents them from getting back together. Francine Evans and Jimmy Doyle would have destroyed each other if they got back together and Greta (Kiera Knightly) and Dave (Adam Levine) couldn’t because they were each pulling for aspects of the music industry which, according to the way the film set it up, were in direct conflict with each other.

With Begin Again, I also liked how it introduced another element, a music producer (Mark Ruffalo), and spent a huge amount of the plot on the difficulties of producing an indie album that eventually had to welcome and embrace the ambient sounds of the streets since Greta’s makeshift band couldn’t afford to book a studio to record in. Fortunately, that resulted in an inspired piece of work.

Arguably, Begin Again ends with some ambiguity, unlike New York New York and La La Land, with two radio friendly versions of the same song, “Lost Stars”. It leaves it up to the audience to decide which version they prefer and consequently, who they side with, and which side of the tension between indie and commercial music they fall on.

Speaking of the sounds of the street, another film that came out in 2016 that has achieved both critical and popular success and was nominated for the best comedy/musical category at this year’s Golden Globes too, is Sing Street.

Undeniably based on the romanticised version of how the Beatles came to be, Sing Street is about a group of school boys from Dublin forming a band. Although a homage to great bands through the ages like The Cure, Duran Duran, The Jam, Motorhead, etc., this film also had a split focus between visuals and music but managed to marry the two quite effectively by inserting a young model, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), as the female star in the band’s self-made music videos, and having the band lead’s (Cosmo played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) clothes and hair style change comically based on whichever strain of music was influencing his songwriting at that point in time.

The shy awkward tones of male voices breaking in the midst of puberty blend together in a heartfelt narrative of small town artists wanting to break away and make it in the big city. Both La La Land and Sing Street feature the film musical trope of having the music overtake the visuals at the height of the film’s narrative and emotional tension to weave an internally focalised illusion of what the musician sees.

In La La Land this is in the much talked about climax at the end of the film where Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) plays the theme song on the piano one last time in his club as he and Mia (Emma Stone) share a fantasy of what their lives could have been. Easily the best moment in the film but also an overly melodramatic and highly manipulative one aimed at bringing audiences to tears.

In Sing Street, this comes before the final sequence in the film about two thirds?three quarters? of the way through the film when the band books the school hall to make another music video and Raphina doesn’t show up. We’re left with Cosmo’s version of how he imagines the music video to look before he and the audience crash back to reality at the end of the number.

What I liked better in Sing Street is that the film musical’s predictable use of this syntactic element of the genre was not left to the end as a climactic scene. Instead, the film ends on a much more subtle note. The young lovers, Cosmo and Raphina, leave on a tiny motorboat with the intention of sailing to England from Dublin to find their fortune in London.

It’s meant to be an uplifting scene with the smiles on everyone’s faces and the rousing soundtrack in the background but this is where soundtrack and visuals clash in a highly satisfying manner. They leave in the midst of a blinding rainstorm, nearly collide with a cruise ship, bring nothing with them except the clothes on their backs, their demo tapes and portfolio of head shots. In the background, Cosmo’s parents are getting divorced, the family is going to lose their house and the kids will have to shuffle between mum and dad. Without any indication of whether they succeed in their journey or drown at sea, the film ends with a decent amount of hope pinned on their endeavour amidst the crashing waves of reality that results in a lovely feeling of ambiguity as you leave the theatre.

I suppose by this point everyone if feeling like, “What the hell? Why are all these musicals so ambiguously depressing?!”Well, if you want a light-hearted romantic comedy with a happy ending, there’s always Music and Lyrics (2007). Again it features the tension between staying true to one’s artistic vision and compromising for the sake of commercial appeal. Except, this time the slant on the music industry is the tension between performer and the lyricists. Anyway, this one ends happily with Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) and Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore) getting together just as how his melody and her lyrics are eventually performed the way they are meant to be performed.

That’s it. That’s all I have to say about La La Land and how while it looks great, narratively speaking it didn’t quite hit the spot for me.

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