With all the problems that are going on in our country right now it feels inappropriate to write about something as frivolous as movies. But our lives go on and the Academy Awards are coming up so I’m going to weigh in on the film that appears to be the hands-down favorite for the Best Picture Award: La La Land.
Full disclosure: I’m not usually a fan of musicals. I prefer my movies to have more substance. I like to think about—and talk about—the complexities of a film after it’s over. Musicals don’t usually fit that description for me.
The Twinkie and the Nutshell
Everyone—from critics to friends whose opinions I trust—have been raving about La La Land so we went to see it last week. My opinion in a nutshell:
- During the film I checked my watch to see if it would be over soon.
- After the movie I thought, “It’s a Twinkie.”
The substance of a movie musical—should it possess any real substance—consists of three things:
- The music
- The singing
- The dancing
The creators hang the Big Three onto a thin cheesecloth plot that ties them together. Most audiences don’t mind that because they don’t come to a musical for plot, dramatic tension, character development, complexity or messages. They come to simply have a good time and leave humming. But the Big Three have to be good — really good — to make a great musical.
The Big Three
Knowing that, I hardly expected Citizen Kane. In the context of a movie musical, however, I found the Big Three—and the movie as a whole—disappointing. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone make a likable enough couple. There’s friendly chemistry between them, if no real passion, and their characters have some background, motivation, and ambition.
The Big Three, however, leave something to be desired:
- The Dancing: Okay, Fred and Ginger they are not. Ditto Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. Their dancing is tentative; they’ve learned the moves but can’t execute them fluidly and confidently. As dancers they lack energy, passion and, above all, confidence. Their dance routines reminded me of high school plays where the kids have rehearsed but aren’t really sure they can pull it off. Ryan and Emma go from step to step and move to move but the routines just don’t shine. When Ryan Gosling does the “catch the hat” move I expected him to chortle happily. I have seen better dancing from amateurs on So You Think You Can Dance.
You can actually see the difference in the scenes below. On the right, Gene Kelly puts everything he has — passion, skill, energy, extension — into his light-pole move. Ryan Gosling just kind of hangs there.
- The Singing: To give them their due, Ryan and Emma try; they put everything they have into the songs. The problem is that they don’t have much: reedy, thin voices with no real depth and average breath control. They get through the songs but their renditions don’t make you want to stand up and applaud. I got more out of “Let It Go” when I took my granddaughter to see Frozen. Anyone from Pentatonix, The Chanticleer Singers or, heck, a college a capella group could have done a better job.
- The Music: I liked the music and thought the songs had real promise. Either “Audition” or “City of Stars” will probably win an Oscar for Best Song. Given how poorly they were performed, however, I couldn’t get really excited about these songs or any of the other tunes in the film.
Why Knock a Twinkie?
Ordinarily, I would not have written a post about La La Land. When I called it a Twinkie I meant that it looks yummy on the outside but is bland on the inside and filled with lighter-than-air fake cream. I pretty much forgot about it the minute I walked out of the theater.
What bothers me, though, is that given its obvious flaws it was even nominated for Best Picture. Because that puts it in contention with movies that are bigger, better, fuller and more meaningful, like Arrival, Fences, Hidden Figures and Manchester by the Sea. Anyone of those movies outclasses La La Land by miles.
What bothers me even more is that it will probably win because, you know, it’s about Hollywood. And Hollywood just looooves movies that polish up “the business” with a fairy-tale shine.
Follow the Money
We haven’t seen Hidden Figures or Fences yet but they are on the list. In the meantime, La La Land has grossed $106,693,300 on a production budget of $30 million with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 96% Fresh (but only 86% of audiences Liked it). Did I mention that Hollywood also likes movies that make a lot of money?
So there you have it. I didn’t much enjoy La La Land and I would recommend lots of other movies that are currently playing before I would send you to this one. On Sunday, February 26, though, I’ll be rooting for Arrival when the Best Picture envelope gets opened..