The singing and dancing makes La La Land better, not worse

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are not great singers. Not in the Broadway or even rock and roll senses of the word, anyway. They’re also not great dancers in the Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers senses of the word. They can both carry a tune and make graceful moves, as they prove in the musical La La Land, current Oscar frontrunner and film-nerd debate flashpoint, but their performances in the movie tend to be more of the hushed, lilting, or gentle (if you’re less kind, “reedy”) variety. As it has amassed acclaim, awards, and cash, the movie’s show of technical limitations have been thrown back at it through a number of different criticisms: the music isn’t memorable, the stars can’t sing, the stars can’t dance; this is pastiche without a soul; what business does Gosling have pretending to be a jazzman; what kind of musical is this, anyway?

Issues about representation and whiteness in La La Land make particular sense in the current cultural moment, when more people are speaking up more forcefully about inequality in Hollywood. If those knocks against the movie are up-to-the-minute, though, complaints about Stone and Gosling’s abilities as singers and dancers, echo plenty of others about modern movie musicals from the recent past. Almost every time a movie star appears in a musical, someone will point out that Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Johnny Depp, or whoever else can’t complete with the technical best of Broadway or the golden age of the cinematic form. But movie musicals have changed since that golden age. Virtuosic displays of singing and/or dancing can still be dazzling – maybe moreso than ever, considering how few movies are able to offer it – but many of the best recent movie musicals use a lack of virtuosity as an advantage. Collectively, they point the way through what has arguably become a post-singing, post-dancing, post-stage world.

This is not to denigrate the classic movie musicals of yore. Time has not dimmed the splendor of Singin’ In The Rain (it’s arguably made it shine all the brighter), and even less iconic, less specifically timeless individual films like the Astaire-Rogers musicals (from which La La Land lightly cribs some bits of choreography) make the business of entertaining and delighting an audience appear far easier than it probably is. But genres evolve with their medium, and musicals are not honor-bound to replicate the values of the past. This doesn’t make contemporary musicals automatically better than their ancestors; indeed, many of them are much, much worse. But nor does it mean they all fail to measure up just because they don’t value the same techniques as their forbearers.

Though in retrospect it’s a major pivot point in the genre, Moulin Rouge! was far from the first musical to de-emphasize either singing or dancing. Astaire movies certainly have better examples of the latter than the former, and some musicals toyed with these genre conventions as a means of experimenting. Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, for example, has a central conceit that at the time was written about almost as a gimmick: Every actor in it does their own singing, regardless of ability (except for Drew Barrymore, who was apparently too mortified and/or mortifyingly weak to get a pass). This means listening to actors with singing voices that range from pleasant (Edward Norton) to barely there (Allen himself), with plenty of awkward middle ground. Moulin Rouge!, though, stuck in a lot of craws at the time of its 2001 release for combining non-Broadway singing with aggressive, MTV-style cutting. In short, it’s a musical where non-pro singers perform musical numbers cut together in a way that does not place high priority on showcasing athletic dancing.

That might sound like a nightmare, but as it turns out, director Baz Luhrmann is the rare contemporary filmmaker who loves musicals yet also understands how they might work cinematically following MTV’s de facto takeover of the genre (audience members who roll their eyes at the idea of characters “breaking into song” rarely seem to have that trouble with the concept of a music video, perhaps because the music video was starting to replace the film musical before MTV even existed). The stars’ limitations – McGregor has a nice rock and roll but decidedly non-operatic voice; Kidman’s is a little thin – don’t limit the film, because Luhrmann is performing with the camera. Plenty of old musicals have camera movement and editing: Singin’ In The Rain, to return to an obvious example, captures its dance numbers without limiting itself to locked-down set-ups. In those and many other great musical sequences, the camera is a silent partner; in Luhrmann’s, it’s more of an active participant, not complementing the rhythm of singers and dancers but helping to create it.

In this context, where the musical’s cinematic properties dominate any one star, less polished singing and dancing actually become an advantage. Ewan McGregor is not as “good” a singer as Whitney Houston (for that matter, he’s probably not as good a singer as Dolly Parton, either), but there’s something ecstatically moving about the way he joyfully bursts into the chorus of “I Will Always Love You” during the climax of the “Elephant Love Medley” sequence – it has a reach to it that impeccable singing chops would not replicate (even within the Houston catalog, this has applications: Isn’t “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” so much more delightful than her cover of “I Will Always Love You”?). Less joyfully, the gravel-throated Moulin Rouge! cover of The Police’s “Roxanne” is a dance number – it’s framed specifically as a tango – but Luhrmann’s assured cutting of the sequence builds tension through its juxtaposition of McGregor’s counter-vocals and the rhythm of a group of dancers, not a single dancer’s powerhouse showcase.

Many of the best post-Moulin Rouge! movie musicals also step away from musical traditionalism. Johnny Depp’s growly, rock-inflected take on the title character of Sweeney Todd didn’t please some Sondheim purists, but his voice has a roughness that matches the furrowed, barely-contained anger of his performance. It’s singing made to match close-ups and medium shots, rather than hit the back row of a theater. Some other genre highlights further dispense with bombastic theatricality: There’s a downright homemade quality to young-people-in-bands rock musicals like God Help the Girl and Sing Street. Girl has a whimsical sense of space to its simple choreography along with a low-budget music video sensibility, one that Sing Street incorporates into its narrative, which is actually, in part, about the making of music videos the way that some musicals are about putting on a big show.

In plenty of ways, La La Land positions itself as a throwback to the pre-music video period. It begins with an old-timey CinemaScope logo, it was shot on film, it pays visual homage to many classic musicals, its songs lack the now-customary pop or rock touches, and the story concerns itself with the feelings of two extremely attractive white people. One thing that keeps the movie from becoming an extended, regressive pine for nonexistent Good Old Days, though, is its approach to music and performance. Though both characters want desperately to make their living in the performing arts, the songs Stone and Gosling perform are, for the most part, aimed at each other, rather than serving as demonstrations of their boundless talents.

Though Gosling’s character Seb takes the stage in a variety of guises over the course of the movie, we never really see him perform the movie’s signature tune “City of Stars” in a public way. He warbles it by himself, and he sings it as a private duet with Stone’s Mia. Similarly, Stone and Gosling’s dance in the “A Lovely Night” number is relatively low-impact in terms of physical exertion, but it fits the casually flirtatious, tenuous nature of their relationship at that point in the film. It’s preceded by “Someone in the Crowd,” which has the trappings of a more elaborate number, but is performed largely in an apartment building and on an empty street. When the number continues at a party, including a lavish shot that dives underwater with a group of background singers/swimmers, it’s no longer Mia’s fun, messing-around song with her roommates; it escapes from “someone” to the crowd.

This fits with the movie’s treatment of Mia and Seb’s talents, which is more nuanced that it may look at first. Though Seb is depicted as a dutiful jazz obsessive who can’t bring himself to phone in even a background-music performance at a dinner joint, even if his stubbornness costs him his job (again, it’s implied), his big dream is not to cut a classic jazz record or become a famous jazz musician; it’s to open a jazz club and preserve his traditionalist vision of jazz. A little regressive, perhaps, but not a dream that necessarily aggrandizes his talent, which tends to catch Mia’s attention far more readily than anyone else’s. When he does perform in public, either in his embarrassing keytar gig at a party or as part of a very successful band led by John Legend’s character, the movie focuses on Mia’s reaction moreso than anyone else’s, making clear the ultimate value of his art. Mia herself is depicted a little more clearly as talented and worthy of success, though it’s dependent almost entirely on Emma Stone’s own talent for appearing instantly likable; her auditions are usually shown in fragments, focusing more on her not getting a chance than her powerhouse acting going to waste (the movie also smartly elides showing more than a few seconds of her one-woman show). Even Mia’s “Audition” song, while positioned as a more public performance in front of people who are not Seb, is directed to feel like a spare, lonely solo, with the lights around her darkening as her small audience falls away. It’s a moving scene, to be sure, but it doesn’t take the obvious tack of representing her audition via a showstopping barnstormer of an 11 o’clock number. There’s tension between her expressiveness and the limits of her vocal range.

If every number was performed with the brio of the movie’s biggest moments, or if the songs were sung with roof-rattling power, that tension would snap and the movie’s intimacy would, if not evaporate entirely, certainly diminish. Though La La Land is a musical about performers, it’s important to note that neither character is a professional singer or dancer, and we spend a lot more time watching them do that than we do watching them act or, uh, jazz. As much fun as it can be to see someone as athletic as Gene Kelly or graceful as Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers play a (relatively) “normal” person whose physical expressions transcend normal boundaries, it’s also neat to see actors who aren’t naturally gifted dancers attempt to float away from their default naturalism. (I have seen a lot of Step Up movies and like most of them, but I have never found myself wishing that the best dancers in the movies would have more lines, or carry more emotional weight.) Despite the surface-level homages to older movies, this is a lot closer to what Moulin Rouge! does than what Swing Time or Top Hat does. I’m sure plenty of classic musical fans would argue that there was never any need for Astaire and Rogers to be artificially floated into the air at a planetarium, and that is true. Maybe for some viewers, this sequence plays like one of those Goldblum-style just-because-they-could-they-never-stopped-to-ask-if-they-should moments of technology run amok. But I find the interplay between actual human movement and cinematically enhanced impossibility (which, let’s be real, starts with cuts and covers just about anything that movies do) stunning in its wistful expressiveness.

“Stunning” may sound like too much for such a relatively simple scene, but this balance is not as easy to strike as it may look. For examples of how it can go wrong, look to Rob Marshall’s filmed musicals Chicago and Nine, which manage to come off both stagy (with their minimalist sets seemingly designed to downplay or make narrative excuses for the songs) and cravenly hyperactive (with fast cutting out of a middling music video). The most extreme version of this divide is visible in a movie like Mamma Mia! where Pierce Brosnan cannot carry a tune on pure enthusiasm. During his duet with Meryl Streep (who is a decent singer, because of course she is) on “S.O.S.,” Brosnan struggles mightily with the relatively benign task of singing a dopey ABBA song, issuing a strangled cry of “…when you’re gone!” that has become a signature moment in a craptacular movie.

Yet at the same time, Brosnan’s vocal lurching may also be the only honest moment in the whole of Mamma Mia! The other incompetence on display in the movie – the inability to excitingly or inventively shoot big group numbers; the self-conscious overacting; the plot-lite dithering – are mere reasons that the movie is terrible in its synthetically cheesy way. Brosnan, with his game and failed attempt to sound as if he’s not being prodded with an electrical device, is terrible in an entirely human way.

Enjoyment of Brosnan’s tanking of Mamma Mia! doesn’t necessarily override the importance of choreography, blocking, and all-around talent, all of which still matter to anyone making a great musical (which Mamma is emphatically, I need to stress, not). There’s still room for traditional dazzle in the genre; La La Land opens with this very pleasure, mounting an elaborate L.A. freeway production number before it even introduces its two lead characters. But even the freeway scene, with its dozens of talented, unknown singers and dancers, is predicated as much on the camera choreography as the actual singing and dancing. I’ve heard complaints about poor audio mixing in that sequence that muffle the singing, and while this may or may not be intentional, it makes a kind of sense either way. Chazelle doesn’t construct that sequence in a way that zeroes in on amazing solos or eye-popping dance interludes or even the song’s lyrics. Instead, it overflows with color and bodies and movement in a way that a stage production probably wouldn’t – you can’t put dancers that far in the background on a stage, at least not without some pretty extreme trickery. Yet in La La Land, dancing in and around parked cars on a Los Angeles overpass seems both physically achievable and like a special effect all its own. The fantastical and the real both look better when they’re side by side.