The feel-good La La Land, director Damien Chazelle’s prohibitive awards favorite, is a movie of mystery. Can Emma Stone sing? (She can.) Can Ryan Gosling sing and dance? (As a singer, he makes an OK dancer.) The real and lasting question rising from its smoggy, sunny success, however, is this one: Why don’t they make more musicals?
Every week a pigeon flies in from “The Death of Cinema”-land with a horror story about this genre or that genre being found at the bottom of a swamp and how that spells doom for the industry. The mid-range drama is the most popular decomposing corpse of the moment. But ever since Moulin Rouge and Chicago re-established the movie musical 15 years ago, the genre has made hit after hit with very few outright misses. Look at the box office numbers for the past few weeks–with La La Land thriving and the animated Sing hitting all the notes on the scale. So why do Reese Witherspoon and Scarlett Johansson have to pretend to be cartoon animals to cheep and peep onscreen?
Twenty years ago, the answer would have been, well, who’s going to sing, Mira Sorvino (who actually has a passable voice, but … stick with me)? That’s not the case anymore. Movie stars have turned Youtube into their own worldwide karaoke machine. A number of them are quite decent. Stone can sing. Emma Watson can sing. Johansson has recorded. Anne Hathaway and Daisy Ridley slay a number on Barbra Streisand’s recent compilation. Anna Kendrick and even Jennifer Lawrence have scored Billboard hits, with Hailee Steinfeld parked in the Top 20 this month. Add to that a generation of theatrical pop stars. It’s not hard to imagine a dream sequence with Lady Gaga belting out “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
This probably isn’t a true review, in the classical sense. So far, it leaves unspoken the film’s successes. Is composer Justin Hurwitz’music sophisticated but singable? (Yes, one of the most singable since Grease, while indulging in old-style jazz.) Does Chazelle reach the musical’s surreal whirlwind (Definitely; most auspiciously in the celebrated “Another Day of Sun” opener and the planetarium waltz among the stars.) The romantic side of La La Land pedals softly and predictably. But that’s just the genre – musicals express and celebrate life rather than explain it.
The popularity of genres comes and goes. La La Land represents a consolidation of the return of the musical and a bright sign pointing to the future, one hopes. For an industry that treats every cough like a sign of cancer, La La Land seems like a vital potion at the end of the spoon.