Ask any knowledgeable critic for a unique American contribution to entertainment and the answer you will get is the “musical,” the art form that frees characters to incorporate song and dance as part of their activity, as opposed to standing center stage for an aria. In addition to the singularity of Broadway shows, we have a treasury of Hollywood films that have captured the semblance of spontaneity in perfectly choreographed dance routines executed by the most talented people in their respective fields. What makes these movies so magical is what Italians call sprezzatura - the illusion that creating a complex work of art is effortless. Think Fred Astaire with any partner, Gene Kelly with a tapper like Debbie Reynolds or a ballerina like Leslie Caron - they move so gracefully that they hardly seem earthbound. Think of the singers - Judy Garland, Doris Day, Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby. Think of the great composers who lent their genius to this form - Gershwin, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Bernstein, Sondheim, Lerner & Lowe - these are but a handful of a most impressive list.
And now comes La La Land, a movie whose opening number on an LA highway with predictably stalled traffic can only be called dizzying and klutzy, a warning to lower our expectations for finesse. There was obviously thought behind this movie - its writer/director Damien Chazelle created the outstanding Whiplash a few years back and it’s clear that he was purposely choosing actors with little expertise in singing and dancing. Whatever thought he had in mind is now irrelevant; what does matter is how mediocre and uninspired this movie turned out to be. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are two magnetic stars, both excellent actors who have played together before, yet in this film they lack the chemistry that comes from doing what you do best. Listening to Emma sing is like listening to your friend’s untalented child - you like her and wish you could say her performance was terrific, but the lie is so big that you trip on its utterance. Ryan Gosling fares better as a jazz pianist since the music itself is more dynamic than the tepid songs suitable for Emma’s limited vocal range. The plot is boiler-plate - ambitious musician falls in love with ambitious actress in LA, both seeking to fulfill their dreams of success, yadda, yadda, yadda. The action is divided into seasons and by the time we reach Fall, we can’t wait for a winter storm to knock out the electricity and hasten the end. We have been spoiled by tv shows like American Idol and Dancing With the Stars that feature ordinary people with extraordinary talent or celebrities not known as dancers who surprise us with great proficiency in their routines. Now, asking us to watch a big budget musical with singing and dancing that is less accomplished than a Coke commercial can only makes us wonder at the decision to go for mediocrity when there is so much incredible talent available in this genre.
Perhaps this is like conceptual art where the execution is less important than the pompous rationalization for it. If you’ve ever walked through a Whitney Biennial and looked at a scattering of detritus on the floor, then at its wall text full of inflated art-speak, you’ll know what I mean. If you’ve stayed for most of LA LA Land, don’t leave before the end, a redeeming reprise of everything we’ve seen with alternative choices and endings that satisfy emotional longings in a spirited way. Fast-moving and beautifully executed and edited, it’s all too brief and not enough to compensate for the attenuated ho-hum footage that precedes it.
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