‘La La Land:’ It’s no ‘Singin’ in the Rain’


A younger, more scheming version of myself lived for musical theatre. I grew up in the stage wings and spent my birthdays in tech rehearsals. Being onstage, the feeling of winning an audience over was an unrelenting adrenaline. I lay awake at night, running down a list of my intended future onstage conquests: Eliza DooLittle with my name on the marquee. A vibrant world of technicolor, film musicals allowed me access to an infinite number of lives to live and characters to play. The golden age of film musicals is, surely, a long-departed one.

Therefore, intrigued was I when chitchat of a musical film “unlike any other” reached my ear after the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2020. Every critic was lauding a new film that, for all the praise they poured upon it, you would think the director had resurrected Ginger Rogers’ ghost.

“La La Land,” starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, is the latest shiny object to become the darling of film critics. With a modern-day score and a 1950’s wardrobe, the film follows an amorous duo living in Los Angeles, trying to make it big. Mia, a wishful actress, and Sebastian, a talented piano player thirsty for any conversation about jazz, navigate the difficulties of being simultaneously in love and goal-oriented. Directed by Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash,” “10 Cloverfield Lane”) and scored by Justin Hurwitz (“Whiplash”), “La La Land” has already swept the Golden Globes in the prestigious categories of Best Motion Picture Comedy/Musical, Best Leading Actress in a Comedy, Best Leading Actor in a Comedy, and Best Director.

There exists a relaxed chemistry between Stone and Gosling, evident in their breezy style of conversation. But breezy conversation is all we get until Sebastian takes Mia to a Jazz club, and fervently defends it as an art form. Perhaps the most effective moment in the film, there is a character that makes a passionate plea in defense of improvisational music-making, and it will light you on fire. The chemistry between these two may be the muscle of film, but jazz is its urgent backbone.

Mixing music and romance, Chazelle was perhaps correct in his selection of the two principles in being the closest thing to an old Hollywood couple one could find today. He wrote a script with many holes and deviations (for instance, we never get to see Mia’s one woman show, but are left to cypher out for ourselves if it is a train wreck or a work of wonder) but Chazelle ultimately formed two fairly amiable characters.

Regardless of how companionable any of the characters were, they could not overcome several glaring issues. I was struck by how fundamentally dejected “La La Land” left me, and it was not due to the deftly crafted final scenes which, I can say with certainty, won the film all its acclaim. The myriad of weak vocal performances throughout the film – is that Emma Stone boldly demanding a producer in the crowd to take notice her, or a mouse crying out for cheese? A raspy fog best typifies that which is sung by not only the two principle characters, but it seems every ensemble member took the opportunity of being onscreen come down with a cold. Hurwitz’s bouncing bars become meek melodies through the throats of Stone and Gosling. Chazelle’s work holds up as a delight to the senses, as long as you are hard of hearing.

Children of stage musicals are told to go for the notes and are told by chain-smoking directors to sing to the back of the room. Perplexed as to why none of the performances shook me to the core, I recalled the half-hearted way in which everything was dawdled at in this film, where no one could make up their mind and everyone was quick to quit. Millennials these days. Left crestfallen by a first viewing, so much so that I viewed it twice in hopes of being mistaken, “La La Land” most pointedly left me unfulfilled.

And, in the most biting irony of all, the entire thesis of the film is encompassed in the dreamer’s relentless pursuit. It an ode to the fearless, and one can only wish the voices were equally daring, or that the songs were taken out completely. Not one of us hold it against an aspiring actress or a pianist for not having a knockout voice. The film could still have incorporated those abundant principles of jazz without a peep from Stone or Gosling. We can’t fault Chazelle for wanting to cast big names with such a large budget production on the line, but the film suffered because of it. If only a chance was taken on a hopeful actress, singer, and dancer without name, but with talent by the truckload. Sound familiar? It’s the same plea Stone asks of us as casting directors in every audition she attends.

I am left asking where the triple threats of today are: the Gene Kellys, the Judy Garlands, the Fred Astaires, where have they gone? Disenchanted from my second viewing of “La La Land,” I turned this question of casting over as I searched for something to cleanse my frustrated psyche. I happened upon “Singin’ in the Rain” and spent two hours enchanted by Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and a nineteen year-old firecracker named Debbie Reynolds.

Everything “Singin’ in the Rain” is, “La La Land” is not. The 1953 classic tips its hat to Hollywood: humorous to the point of exhaustion and artful to the tune of sensational. An effective and heartfelt love letter to the film industry and big movie production, it seems as though everyone in this film emerged from the womb with tap shoes on and song bursting from their hearts. And while Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor will have you buckled over in laughter or slack-jawed in amazement, it is the effortless effortful rhythm and refinement of Debbie Reynolds. Reyonlds is trained, but not to the point of self-conscientiousness, a characteristic the principles in “La La Land” suffered from. Over-groomed and constrained, the dancing in Chazelle’s piece seems to be a task undertaken rather than a spontaneous expression.

I saw “Singin’ in the Rain” for the first time when I was seven, and it was a formative viewing. I fervently wanted to be Debbie Reynolds jumping out of a cake, Debbie Reynolds throwing a pie in someone’s face, or Debbie Reynolds talking back to men ferociously. Sixty-four years later, Reynold’s voice still rings unafraid and unapologetic.

While I am aware that every film does not have the capacity to be “Singin’ in the Rain,” I don’t see any girl watching “La La Land” with dreams of becoming Emma Stone. The death of Debbie Reynolds marks the passing of something that perhaps expired long before this milestone – the death of the film musical. Will there ever come another film in which dancing, singing, and acting are superb on every front, in which we as an audience aren’t sufficing to check one of the three boxes and call it a great film?

I am not alone in longing for a bygone era of musical film, one in which performers sing with gumption because not only do they have the pipes to do so, but because they so love to do it. “La La Land” was, by no means, an ugly or heartless film. A well-acted whirl of primary colors, it is still worth a watch, but not the hype. But when the Academy lauds heartthrob Ryan Gosling come February, lest we forget that Debbie Reynolds did it better, in heels, 64 years earlier.

Campus Chronicle
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