On La La Land, and Defining Vulnerability.

I’ve always loved movies. Not in the all-encompassing way it is for some, but in the general sense. I like the ritual of it, of going to the movie theater, buying an excessive amount of buttered popcorn (what is that ‘butter’ made out of, anyway? I probably don’t want to know), and slurping an oversized soda. The at-home rituals are pretty good too. Lazy Saturday nights cozied up on the couch with a fuzzy blanket, homemade popcorn and a glass of wine or 3.

The other ritual I like is the critiquing. As the granddaughter of an independent film buff and the child of a couple with very diverse film tastes, I grew up watching movies that crossed the thematic gambit. From art-house films to violent thrillers, from film noir to cheesy rom-coms, I don’t tend to discriminate when it comes to movie picks. I do, however, tend to be discerning. I also — which, if you read this blog often, will come as no surprise — have a lot of strong movie-based opinions.

Of course, if there’s any genre that brings out my most fiery inner critic, it’s the movie-musical. As a trained musical theater actress who was raised on the classics (you can pry the Shirley Jones version of The Music Man from my cold, dead hands), and grew up in the theater, I have a lot of strong feelings about the celebrity studied movie-musicals that have been so popular of late. With some notable exceptions — shout-out to Rent — I have found myself bitterly disappointed in most of these modern musical offerings.

Thus, when I heard that Pasek and Paul — the duo behind such fabulous contemporary musicals as Dogfight and Dear Evan Hansen, as well as the TV hit Smash — were composing the music for a new film starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, I found myself intrigued but not enthused. (Edit: A friend informed me that Pasek and Paul just did the lyrics; Justin Hurwitz composed the music. Thanks for the edit, N!)

Indeed, when my roommate K and her boyfriend B invited me to join them in seeing it at the local independent theater on a recent snowy Sunday, I almost didn’t go. While I genuinely enjoy Emma Stone as an actress, and Ryan Gosling is, well, Ryan Gosling, I figured I would only experience my usual disappointment with La La Land. Interestingly, in some ways I was wrong. In others, however, I was very, very right.

Copyright 2017 La La Land Movie
Hollywood’s newest take on the movie musical: La La Land. Copyright 2017 La La Land Movie

Here’s the thing about La La Land: the acting is superb. Emma Stone takes the ingenue archetype and makes it better — makes it real. Her Bambi-eyes, framed by dark and prominent brows, belie an inner grit that comes out in twists of the mouth and stark, deliberate movement. Ryan Gosling, starring as the star of her great love story, shines with his usual minimalist flare. He uses his classic, somewhat bland features to great effect, utilizing the most subtle quirks of the brow and strokes of the chin to convey deep emotion. John Legend, in a supporting role, fails, in some ways, to truly act, but his awkward portrayal of a jazz musician is so uncomfortable as to seem totally realistic.

All those great performances don’t even touch on the work of the greater ensemble. A diverse, lively, polished-but-imperfect bunch that brings the viewer indelibly and happily into the story, for most of the film, I watched these fictional Los Angeles denizens with a big grin on my face. As I said, the acting is brilliant. The story is cliched but wildly enjoyable, if not particularly original. It’s the music I couldn’t get behind.

Copyright 2017 Entertainment Weekly
Much of La La Land’s grin-inducing quality comes from its superb and diverse ensemble. Copyright 2017 Entertainment Weekly

‘But Sarah,’ my musical theater friends proclaim, ‘It’s Pasek and Paul; we love Pasek and Paul!’

They’re right. Even in the face of this movie, my love for these composers’ work hasn’t waned. For La La Land, Pasek and Paul, in collaboration with composer Justin Hurwitz, created haunting, intricate melodies that know when to stay simple and when to swell. They maintained their usual effortless cadence, using both languid phrases and rapid-fire word play with their standard level of excellence. What they didn’t do, though, is take their actors into account.

When I picture the makers of La La Land brainstorming, I picture a boardroom full of men. (In related news: I’m right! The production team boasted 12 men and a whole 2 women!) I see them nudging each other, walking through the storyboard and exclaiming: ‘You know what this movie needs? More female vulnerability! Yeah, that!’

So, instead of trusting Emma Stone, a celebrated actress who has achieved not only critical acclaim but major box-office success, the producers, composers, and directors of La La Land decided — consciously or otherwise — that Stone could not achieve believable vulnerability on her own. They had to help her along by crafting original music that was so far out of her vocal range as to be almost impossible for her to sing. They inserted her into song after song where her lack of vocal technique was put on painful display.

Emma Stone La La Land
The look on my face when I’m given music wildly outside of my vocal range…

To Stone’s credit, she didn’t shy away from it. She dug into the embarrassing experience of singing music totally outside of her vocal abilities. Let’s be clear here: Stone can sing. She boasts a starring Broadway credit as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, and indeed, her performance in La La Land‘s ending ballad — a song with notes she could actually hit — was beautiful and well-sung. The rest of it though? It wasn’t fair. It was, in fact, as a musically-trained viewer, totally infuriating.

Look, I know that my frustrations won’t be picked up on by the majority of people watching this movie. In fact, B, K’s boyfriend and an awesome person and friend of mine, totally disagrees with me. He loved the fact that Stone couldn’t sing the notes perfectly. He did indeed think it added to her character’s sense of vulnerability. He told me he thought that, in expecting Stone to sing well, if not flawlessly, I was the one being unfair.

Maybe he’s right. But when I see an actress — a gifted actress — being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to star in a movie-musical, I expect her to have the same vocal quality as the equally gifted Broadway actresses gracing the New York stage. Stone’s performance was all the more infuriating because I know she can do better. I’ve seen it. I am disappointed by La La Land because it did a great actress a disservice in the name of contrived emotion. Though the movie was candy sweet, I left with a bitter taste in my mouth.

This seemed proof positive that, once again, male actors are trusted to perform vulnerability all on their own, while female ones have to be led to it. We, and they deserve better. Most importantly, so does Emma Stone, and all who will follow after her.

71/100 for delightful group numbers, incredible acting, and the low-thrum of deep-seated anger throughout for the unnecessary vocal acrobatics thrust upon Emma Stone.

–S

Day 36: February 6, 2017

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