Two days ago a pair of La la Land hit pieces appeared — one from The Conversation‘s Will Brooker, another by Jon Caramanica for the N.Y. Times. There was a third posted two weeks ago (1.11) by USA Today‘s Kelly Lawler.
La La Land is not in any kind of trouble — zip. This is just standard Phase Two nitpick pushback. La La Land is winning the Best Picture Oscar whether the naysayers like it or not, and the fact that it’s become a huge financial success — $93 million domestic, $177 million worldwide — is icing on the cake. Plus it understands itself, knows how to deal the cards, delivers the emotional moments just so. The people who’ve said it’s somehow ungenuine are just pissheads.
La La Land doesn’t fit my idea of fantasy or escapism except during (a) the falling-in-love scene, which is an obvious fit in that context, and (b) the bittersweet fantasy sequence at the very end, which isn’t really fantasy-escapism as much as a sorrowful “if only” moment. The rest of it is about frustration, anxiety, not getting there, powerlessness. It’s sharp and catchy throughout, but is mainly about how tough and soul-draining it all is.
MCN’s David Poland posted a pretty good response to the naysayers two days ago also. Here are some of the better portions:
“Don’t forget that this is [director] Damien Chazelle’s third feature, and the second — Whiplash — grossed just $13 million domestically. A musical with original music and characters is enormously rare. Before La La Land the list of original musicals that have grossed over $50 million domestic were Enchanted, The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted. And none of these truly qualified as musicals. They are traditional movies with songs.
“The ‘they can’t sing’ pushback isn’t so much about Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire (who didn’t really sing any better than this) but about Pitch Perfect, which had a lot of great singing, much of it from actors you didn’t know sang that well. But that was not the point of La La Land, as has been pointed out from multiplexes to Saturday Night Live sketches.
“How can anyone claim that a musical that opens with scores of people getting out of their cars to dance and sing on the freeway is ‘easy,’ ‘obvious’ or ‘made for Oscar voters?’ If audiences didn’t fall in love with that five minutes, the whole picture goes down. That is a massive risk. But because it gets applause and not tears, for some, there is no street cred.
“As far as the duo’s dances, they are the way human people who love musicals imagine themselves in a musical. Ryan and Emma are not incompetent as dancers (or singers), but they aren’t polished pros either.
“Even the dance numbers with professionals are a little light on the precision show-offiness. There are no ringers, like Cyd Charisse walking into the bar. It’s not movie-musical like the big numbers in Hail, Caesar!.
“The tipping point is ‘Audition’. You want to tell me that an in-one that pushes in on Emma Stone’s face and relies on her performance, unadulterated except by music, without flashing onto something else or breaking into a dance or anything, really, besides Emma’s eyes and mouth and jaw and soul…you’re telling me this is not as daring a moment of cinema as we have seen this year?
“Well, bully for you. I put it up there with Scorsese’s torture and rapture, Mahershala Ali gently holding a young man just above the ocean water, the big turn in Arrival, Denzel and Viola going at it…even the greatest movie moment (for me) of the year, Michelle Williams trying to talk to her ex about their loss [while] standing outside in Manchester, exposed in so many ways.
“You may like other things better. I happily concede that the level of intense personal drama in those other moments might top ‘Audition.’ But pushing it off as ‘obvious’ or ‘easy’ or pandering to the greatest common denominator is just picking a fight because you feel like picking a fight.”