'La La Land' Is More Modern Than You Think

1:41 PM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

For the first time in decades, an original film musical is the darling of Hollywood critics and awards season. Damien Chazelle's La La Land, with a score by Justin Hurwitz and Broadway duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is a well-crafted musical in the vein of the MGM musicals of old: a showbiz tale mixed with a love story. For a wide array of reasons, however, there has been a fair amount of criticism leveled at the film since its release. While it's certainly worth considering the relative social importance of La La Land when set against groundbreaking, equally well-crafted tales like Moonlight and Hidden Figures, it's also worth looking at La La Land in the context of the genre it joins and that musical language. When viewed through this lens, it becomes apparent that La La Land isn't just an old-school musical: it's a reinterpretation that pays homage to classic style and tropes while simultaneously calling them into question in the modern world.

Much has been made of the fact that stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling aren't Broadway-caliber singers, and it shows. What this criticism misses is the La La Land does not purport to be a Broadway musical, but rather a throwback to the film ones of the 1930s through 1950s. Because there is considerably less market for musicals in Hollywood these days, the majority of mainstream musicals we see are adaptations of Broadway shows, which are written for trained vocalists and often utilize operatic techniques or pop-rock belting.

But in the heyday of the film musical, songs were not crafted as vocal showcases, but as miniature stories and/or entertainment, first and foremost. Although there were excellent singers among those Golden Age stars (such as Bing Crosby and Judy Garland), many of the most iconic stars of these musicals were average singers at best: Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, even Fred Astaire all sang pleasantly, but unremarkably; their dancing and performance charisma were their real strengths. This number from Holiday Inn highlights the contrast between crooner Crosby and hoofer Astaire:

Stone and Gosling are part of that tradition: not Broadway stars with big voices (or Hollywood A-listers trying and failing to imitate that style), but simply charming, talented performers.

La La Land has been hailed as a stylistic throwback to the golden era of MGM film musicals, and it certainly is in many ways, but what commentary in this vein fails to realize is that this film not only pays tribute to that style, but updates it through a modern lens. It does not "romanticize the past so much it fails to say anything about the present," but rather presents a tension between the two - something twenty- and thirtysomethings, as the "nostalgia generation," feel acutely. And it does not simply replicate old-fashioned musical tropes, but reinterprets them.

The clearest instance of this is the handling of Mia's agency. Many of the old MGM musicals, as delightful as they are, have a bit of a values dissonance with their treatment of characters who weren't white men (though they do have their subversive moments - come talk to me about female agency in Holiday Inn).  La La Land, however, turns this on its head: the engine driving the story is Mia, not Sebastian, as some suggest. It is her decisions that drive her career and her relationship with Seb. She is aware of her clich├Ęd existence, where he is not, and takes steps to be something more, where he does not. This is most evident in the final dream sequence - let me explain.

The "dream ballet" is a time-honored tradition in the musical genre. Although it began as a look into the female psyche, with Agnes de Mille's legendary "Laurey Makes Up Her Mind" sequence in the stage version of Oklahoma!, the most famous dream ballets in film musicals were seen through the eyes of male characters. Gene Kelly's films loved this trope, particularly Singin' in the Rain, in which Kelly himself directed the fantasy dance sequence that takes place completely in his character's imagination. La La Land is most clearly descended, however, from another Kelly dream ballet: the iconic end sequence of An American in Paris (incidentally, the last original musical to win Best Picture). In it, Kelly's character, Jerry, imagines a romantic abstract sequence with his love interest, Lise (Leslie Caron). See for yourself in the playlist below:

It's easy to see how La La Land's final sequence is an homage to this, one of the most iconic dance numbers in the history of film. But there's a crucial difference, and it has to do with character. The film reclaims the dream ballet for the female lead, taking us into Mia's heart and mind rather than Seb's. This choice is a decidedly more modern aesthetic, one that both takes us back to de Mille's original desire to nonverbally explore the internal conflict of a woman and takes us into the future by moving past the long-established film musical tradition of male-centric fantasy ballets. And, importantly, both of them are characters in La La Land's dream sequence, rather than having the character whose dream it is function actively and the other function solely as an object. This sequence updates one of the most symbolically rich elements of the musical and updates it to the modern world.

La La Land also reworks one of the classic tenets of the American film musical: the role of innovation. One of the most well-used conflicts in film musicals of the first half of the 20th century was a clash between the old and new, between traditionalists and innovators. These musicals often get a reputation these days for being very conservative, but in reality, the majority were on the side of innovation and progress. And, crucially, their protagonists were as well. Easter Parade's leading duo reached success by breaking free of established ideas of a ballroom song-and-dance pair and incorporating vaudevillian techniques. The titular ladies of The Harvey Girls are (historically-based) innovators who revamp the culture of the Wild West. Most famously, perhaps, is Singin' in the Rain, which focuses on Hollywood's transition to talkies. The heroes are able and eager to adapt to this new form; the only one who (comically) can't adapt and gets left behind is the villainess.

What La La Land does, however, is embrace this tradition of innovation, but leave one of its protagonists on the wrong side of progress. Seb idealizes the jazz of the past, waxing poetic about how "pure" jazz is dying while failing to recognize one of the crucial elements of jazz history: it is a form of music that has traditionally been born out of creativity, evolution, and thinking outside the box. In this, he is placed in direct contrast to Keith, another jazz musician who has the same goal as Sebastian - "save jazz" - but goes about it by trying to broaden its appeal by blending traditional jazz with modern music styles, creating a whole new genre. Unlike his film musical forerunners, Sebastian cannot and will not adapt to a new world, instead choosing to stubbornly stay in the past, as this excellent piece in The Atlantic describes.

This reversal of the classic relationship between musical protagonists and progress also explains one of the main criticisms of the film: the idea that viewers are supposed to side with the white Sebastian over Keith, the only black character of significance, in a debate about a music form rooted in African-American culture and history. Here's the thing, though: we're not supposed to think Sebastian is right. He fails at his goal; his goal of making old-fashioned jazz mainstream is not attainable, as seen in the contrast between his and Keith's ultimate professional achievements: while Keith's group is wildly successful and does, in fact, bring new fans to jazz and innovate in the jazz tradition, Sebastian gets to keep his "pure" jazz, but only reaches a small audience in his club. Sebastian is not on the side of progress, which goes against the coding of classic film musicals; therefore, he is a flawed character and thus we are not directed to think he is right. Indeed, the film shows us repeatedly how his approach is wrong for the goal he hopes for. He keeps his style of jazz performance because of his own personal preference, and the film presents that as an acceptable choice, equally acceptable from a character perspective as Keith's electronic-tinged jazz.

La La Land is a throwback to the classic film musical, and in many ways it faithfully recreates the spirit of those colorful, elegant old musical comedies. But layered within those recreations are commentaries on the shortcomings of nostalgia and timely warnings that slavish devotion to and idolization of an idealized past is not necessarily the best way to go. Ultimately, the classic Hollywood musical tended to be about three things: a willingness to upend the status quo, embracing one's exuberance and inner joy, and romance. By those standards, La La Land tap-dances proudly alongside its predecessors, finding a way to adapt the seemingly outdated modes and conventions of the film musical to address the modern world while never letting go of the most important element: hope and joy.