Notes on song-and-dance cinema

Posted on December 17, 2016

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Musings on ‘La La Land’, a musical film that leaves us with thoughts about the musical genre.

There’s a stunning stretch in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land – which I caught at the 13th Dubai International Film Festival, on a gorgeous big screen, in a theatre that looked like a la la land itself, with a million tiny golden lights that transformed the ceiling into a constellation– that’s unlike anything I’ve seen in another musical. Without revealing too much, let’s just say it’s the closest a musical has come to sci-fi, an alternate what-if reality, except that the shift in the space-time continuum doesn’t come about due to a time machine. It happens due to the music itself – due to one’s creation of it, one’s submission to it, one’s immersion in it. This stretch made my heart swell, which is what the best musicals do. Had the rest of La La Land matched it, we’d have had an instant modern classic – but this isn’t to say the film is dismissible. If nothing else, La La Land is a genre film that operates within the genre (in terms of its tropes), but also steps out of the velvet-rope boundary and clinically relooks at and refigures these tropes. It’s a musical that makes us think about musicals.

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Some of these thoughts come about through explicit references. When Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) – he’s a pianist, she’s a barista who dreams of becoming an actress –break into song and dance after a stroll, we are reminded of You Were Meant For Me (Singin’ In The Rain) and Dancing in the Dark (The Band Wagon). In a later number, when Mia rises in the air, untethered by gravity, we recall Goldie Hawn’s levitation along the banks of the Seine in Everyone Says I Love You.

But the way Chazelle stages these numbers, we also think about technology. The old Hollywood musicals used long takes to showcase the stars’ dancing prowess, but the camera was mostly stationary (i.e. fixed on a tripod) and the scene was mostly static (i.e. the dancers moved but their spatial relation with the backdrop stayed the same). Today’s amazingly mobile cameras pack a lot more into these long takes, so we don’t just see two people dancing continuously, without an editor’s cut, but also zoom in and out of their surroundings, which aren’t controlled and contained studio backlots but the chaos of the whole, wide world. The camera becomes an invisible third dancer, executing its own choreography around the choreography of the stars.

Meanwhile, the old waltzes with the new. As the broad narrative conventions and sunny optimism of the 1940s and 50s gave way to more cynicism, as audiences exposed to foreign art-house cinema got used to a certain rough-grained texture in relationships, filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (with New York, New York) and Peter Bogdanovich (At Long Last Love) attempted to update the studio-backlot musical with the cinematic conventions of a more “realistic”age. That’s what Chazelle does too. On the one hand, he replicates the eye-poppingly bright monochrome costumes of the 1950s Technicolor musical. On the other, his scenes seethe with the psychological realism of the post-Marlon Brando era. A long close-up look at Mia’s audition (Stone is spectacular here)is what an older musical would have staged as a show-stopping number. Here, it is a “scene.” The emotions arise through acting instead of singing,through the tremulousness of speech rather than the brassy belting out of song.

This mix is the most fascinating aspect of La La Land, this fusion of the happy musical (Singin’ In The Rain, The Band Wagon), the wistful musical (Funny Girl, Oliver!), the showbiz musical (Singin’ In the Rain, A Chorus Line), and the sad/dark musical like Chicago and A Star is Born (the title song from the former and The Man That Got Away from the latter are both reincarnated in a marvellously confessional number sung by Mia).And while one part of Chazelle’s filmgenuflects before the rhythms of these older films – big narrative beats and equally big songs – another looks towards the relatively minimalistic French arthouse musicals Jacques Demy made (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort), where the numbers aren’t premeditated anthems so much as speech that lost its way and is now surprised that it’s become a song. As a result, there is a bit of the dissonance we sensed in those films by Scorsese and Bogdanovich. We sense the strain of trying to transcend and out think the material, as though making a mere musical wasn’t enough, and you also have to make a comment on the musical.

Can a modern filmmaker make a great musical in the traditional sense, without being embarrassed by the inherent directness of the genre? Spike Lee came closest with the spectacular Chi-Raq, which combined overt political statement with overt song and dance. The film exploded in your face like a glitter ball that concealed a bomb. Another example that comes to mind is Everyone Says I Love You. It’s not a great movie, let alone a great musical, but it worked because Woody Allen did not strive for anything more than a comedy that incorporated a string of great songs. It didn’t matter that the cast was made of “actors” rather than singer-dancers.

Yes. There’s a difference. Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire weren’t called on to essay many dramatic roles, and Brando wasn’t asked to star in many musicals. The skill sets are different. Look at Brando perform Luck Be a Lady Tonight in Guys and Dolls or Richard Harris in Camelot and you see an actor first, a singer-dancer only later. Actors can surprise us sometimes, the way Antonio Banderas did in Evita, the way Catherine Zeta-Jones did in Chicago – but there aren’t many who can straddle both worlds, both kinds of acting.Gosling and Stone are dramatic actors thinking out a musical rather than performers instinctively grooving to their inner beats. You sense a holding back, some hesitation. And yes, that is part of the point in La La Land, to show that the musical should not belong only to people who can sing like Liza Minnelli and dance like Fred Astaire. I like the idea. I’m not so sure about the film.

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