La La Land of Musicals

Happy New Year, everyone! Twenty-seventeen is certainly off to an interesting start. Given the unpalatable political climate hogging the airwaves and social media, I thought I would write about something positive and cheerful.

As it happens, I’ve been on a musical kick the past few months. Actually, I’ve always enjoyed musicals from West Side Story (1961, have also seen the Broadway stage production) to The Sound of Music (1965, will be seeing the traveling Broadway show this weekend) and South Pacific (1958, especially love my oldest brother’s high school performance as Emile De Becque) to Oklahoma (1955, cheered on my oldest brother’s college performance in the chorus) and on to Grease (1978), My Fair Lady (1954), Gigi (1958, love the film although the lyrics to “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” grosses me out just a little bit), Mary Poppins (1964), Chicago (2002) and even The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Plus there are all the movies from the golden age of Hollywood where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers accompanied an amazing group of triple threat entertainers. I won’t try to name them all for fear of leaving someone out.

Then along comes a Summit Entertainment musical you may or may not have heard of – La La Land. Pay no mind it swept away with a mountain of Golden Globe wins, including Best Musical or Comedy, Best Directer of a Motion Picture, Best Screenplay of a Motion Picture, Best Original Score, Best Original Song (City of Stars), Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy and Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy. No biggie.

To tell you the truth, I don’t really care about awards. I watch a movie or invest my time in a show because something about it interests me, whether it be the actors involved, the enticing premise or the runners associated with the project. La La Land’s trailer whispered a promise to take me back to the musicals of the fifties and sixties and it succeeded.

As La La Land opens on a typical jam-packed Los Angeles freeway, the music begins and a smile immediately forms on my face. If only we could get out of our cars on the westbound 10 to dance and sing (or the 105 in this case) . . . Sigh.

The opening musical number ends and the dancers get back into their cars. This is where the story of Emma Stone‘s Mia and Ryan Gosling‘s Sebastian begins. If you’ve seen another musically-inclined movie called Begin Again (2013), starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, you are probably struck by the similarity in the storytelling – at least in the beginning. Both films are about struggling artists whose paths cross by chance. Each of their tales of how they come to meet is shown consecutively. I relish this opening approach because I’m a sucker for non-linear storytelling in films and novels.

As you’ve probably deduced from the trailer, Mia is an actress slinging coffee on the Warner Brothers lot and Sebastian is an uncompromising jazz musician. Well, you can’t tell he’s uncompromising in the trailer, but he is . . . until he compromises his talent in the film then uncompromises himself in the end. Mia is willing to compromise herself but no one is interested . . . until she decides to make herself a star then doesn’t have to compromise to anyone in the end.

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It’s very simple. Girl and boy kind of meet then almost meet then finally meet. They dance and sing though claim they’re not interested in each other that way. Girl and boy become friends. Girl and boy kiss. Go see the movie for the rest of the story and let me get back to . . .

Emma and Ryan have appeared onscreen together twice before and are a magical couple in La La Land. They have fine singing voices and look like they’re having fun dancing. They are not quite Fred and Ginger, but they are adorable on their toes and are much better actors. I’ve never particularly cared for Sandy and Danny’s car driving off into the sky at the end of Grease, but I absolutely love Mia and Sebastian rising up into the stars at Griffith Observatory. It is romantic. It is charming. It is joyful.

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The requisite montage scenes which follow fondly remind me of Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk (1959) and its pseudo remake Down with Love (2003), starring Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. But La La Land does it with much more style and creativity.

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In the film Mia and Sebastian are not only struggling in their careers but with each other, clashing more than once before finally . . . finally making all the girls in the audience wish they were Mia and all the boys in the audience wish they were Sebastian kissing Mia and playing all that cool jazz music. Ryan does a decent job on the keys although during the more complicated musical compositions, it’s a bit more obvious he ain’t playing those parts. But, who cares? Certainly not me.

Throughout the film, Emma/Mia and Ryan/Sebastian keep me intrigued while the musical arrangements by composer Justin Hurwitz, director Damien Chazelle and choreographer Linus Sandgren elevate the film to something else altogether special. It’s no surprise the talent behind the La La Land lyrics are Justin Paul and Benj Pasek – the lyricist partners behind Dear Evan Hansen starring Ben Platt – an entertainer with a powerful rock em’ sock ’em voice of his own.

If I may digress for a moment, Ben plays Evan – a high school student struggling with social anxiety who is thrown into the spotlight following a tragedy involving another student. Miscommunication. Misunderstandings. And several mistakes ensue.

The official description is : “All his life Evan Hansen has felt invisible. To his peers, to the girl he loves, sometimes even to his own mother. But that was before he wrote the letter – that led to the incident – that started the lie – that ignited a movement – that inspired a community – and changed Evan’s status from the ultimate outsider into the somebody everyone wants to know. But how long can Evan keep his secret? And at what price?”

Dear Evan Hansen is unique in its stage presentation and creates a perfect platform for Ben to belt out Justin & Benj’s emotional lyrics. By intermission everyone in the audience was drying their eyes, including the most mature men in the theater. If you’re in New York or planning a visit, I highly recommend catching a show. Here’s a taste of what you’ll see and hear:

As long as I’m talking about Broadway, I may as well mention I also attended a production which requires no introduction by me – Hamilton. Does it stand up to all the hype? Yes, it surely does. I had the benefit of viewing this masterpiece of musical theater with complete ignorance – having not previously heard a single song. Admittedly, I missed a few lines here and there, but that didn’t prevent me from immersing myself in the pure enjoyment of its lyrical history. No, I did not catch the original Broadway cast, but I’m not that kind of snob. All the newest/latest/whatever performances were outstanding. As luck would have it, I did catch Lin-Manuel Miranda (the genius behind Hamilton, as if you didn’t know) back in 2008 during his first Broadway production, In the Heights. Being a huge fan of hip hop dancing, I found it simply fantastic. I’m looking forward to his performance in Mary Poppins Returns in 2018. Here’s a small taste of Hamilton the Musical:

Back to La La Land and its story of two people struggling to achieve a dream, to find the one, to find themselves. Spoiler Alert. Some people may not like the ending because they want the story to end on a fairy tale note. I find the ending to be true to life. Both Mia and Sebastian are happy. They both achieved their goals and at a fairly young age. Running into each other, at a pinnacle in their careers, causes them to wonder “what if?” We are awarded with a replay of their lives if they’d made different choices. Ending up together with alternate career goals reached is a different kind of happy ending. A sad ending to this movie would have been their running into each other where one of them was successful while the other one was not. THAT would have been devastating to watch. I love that Damien told the story the way he wanted to tell it and not how he was told. Spoiler over. Read more about Damien’s own struggles to get the film made his way in this Hollywood Reporter article.

All the productions I’ve mentioned have in common the theme of struggling – whether it’s a struggle to achieve a dream, to be accepted, to build a nation and/or to be loved. We deal with some form of struggle in our daily lives. To struggle is life. If we’re not struggling to better ourselves, to fight a cause, to improve our situation, what’s the point?

Seeing people (even fictional characters) conquer their fears, find that love and reach those goals, all to music, engenders inspiration. I dare you not to feel inspired in some way after watching La La Land. It inspired me on a small level to write this post. It inspired me on a slightly higher level to reserve my seat for the special viewing of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – a musical I’ve never seen, believe it or not. I hope La La Land continues to inspire me to even greater levels.

I encourage everyone to see this marvelous film if only to cleanse your palate but certainly to stimulate positive thoughts and cheerful feelings. And don’t miss out on seeing Gene Kelly dancing in the rain on the big screen while you can. Buy your ticket(s) here for the limited showings on Sunday, January 15th and Wednesday January 18th. Also read the Nerdist’s post Classic Films: Singin’ in the Rain for an inside look into the making of one of the most beloved musicals of all time – or so I’ve heard.

11 thoughts on “La La Land of Musicals

  1. Loved your review and I’m looking forward to seeing this. I’ll have to wait for the DVD though because I live in the boonies and far, far from a movie theater. That’s quite a musicals binge you’ve been on. You’re going to love “Singing in the Rain.”

      1. Oh, I am…going all the way back to black and white films. So nice to see you here again. Soon we’ll have lots of new “Outlander” posts by you, I hope. *fingers crossed*

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