I wanted to love “La La Land.” Then Ryan Gosling opened his mouth to sing.
As a front-runner for best comedy or musical and a host of other awards at Sunday’s Golden Globes, Damien Chazelle’s smartly crafted movie certainly has a lot going for it: strong reviews; a leading man and lady at the top of their acting games; superlative writing; entrancing direction. The film revels in Hollywood’s golden age of musicals without getting all stuffy and nostalgic, and it gives Los Angeles a big kiss on the lips (several, actually) without getting all gross about it.
But I am so tired of movie musicals in which leading characters can’t sing.
At least Gosling’s vocals are barely passable, unlike Russell Crowe’s tentative warbles in “Les Miserables,” which were as thin and reedy as a sixth-grade oboist. And Gosling’s co-star, Emma Stone, is even a little better, managing to coax some vocal competence in some of her numbers (and, in her climactic song, she even manages to shine).
Still, this was a classic case of hiring actors, not singers, for the big screen. As a musical-theater fan, I can think of dozens of sterling Broadway veterans who are great singers and actors who could have owned these roles in amazing ways. They weren’t considered, of course.
And we seem to be OK with it, critics and all.
Somewhere along the way, the template for movie musicals has become: Having a great voice is optional.
In perhaps the best example of a director just not caring about vocals, Woody Allen didn’t even tell his actors they were going to be in a musical when he cast “Everyone Says I Love You.” Do you remember Julia Roberts trying to sing in that movie? It made a sixth-grade oboist sound like Carnegie Hall material.
Yet the voice is the one thing Hollywood is ambivalent about when it comes to movie musicals. Take the orchestra, for example. It’s a given that professional musicians will be on hand for the accompaniment. We wouldn’t tolerate anything less. Chazelle didn’t ask a high-school ensemble to lay down the soundtrack for “La La Land,” the occasional sour note and all. It wouldn’t conform with our idea of what a musical should “sound” like.
All the visual accoutrements are expected to be top-notch as well: the lighting, cinematography, costumes, art design, etc. It’s simply expected that in a polished, Hollywood product, all will be top-of-the-game professional. No amateur hour here.
Look, I’m enough of a realist to know the game: An A-list movie name trumps an A-list Broadway star any day. This isn’t a new development. There are even times when a Broadway star who has made the vaunted leap to movie stardom has really sunk a movie musical. (Can you really watch Barbra Streisand in “Hello, Dolly!” without wincing at the miscasting?)
I’m well aware that Broadway itself doesn’t always cast the best singers and dancers. Were there 10 Broadway veterans who could have delivered better vocals than Hugh Jackman in “The Boy From Oz”? Sure. Then again, no one but Jackman could have sold that show the way he did.
I understand that character actors have their place in the musical-theater universe, and that a scratchy, warbly voice is sometimes highly effective at conveying character and storyline.
And I acknowledge that live theater and the big screen can be vastly different art forms. A movie musical is a much more intimate affair – no need to belt it to the balcony – and doesn’t need to ratchet up the vocals in quite the same way.
Still, movie musicals are musicals. With songs. Veteran stage performers manage to create complicated, emotionally layered characters and also stir our souls with their musicality. In fact, the music adds another dimension to the performance. That’s why, um, we make musicals in the first place.
Notice I haven’t even mentioned the dancing in the film yet. To me, Gosling and Stone manage to do a more competent job in this respect. Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire they aren’t – even though “La La Land” keeps getting mentioned as a tribute to them – but at least I didn’t sigh heavily at their choreography. I’m not so much of a purist that I demand that my movie stars prove they’re good enough for eight shows a week on Broadway. (I even applauded Meryl Streep in “Mamma Mia.”)
All of which doesn’t mean I hated “La La Land.”
I quite liked parts of it, in fact, from the glorious opening scene to Stone’s powerful “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).”
Chazelle told NPR in an interview that with “La La Land” he aimed to make a film even musical skeptics would love. I want more movie musicals about which musical fans can feel the same.