Yes, this was a trap (what did you expect?), La La Land is great because of course it is. BUT STAY WITH ME because I am semi-serious about the title, it’s just more in the sense that I walked out of the movie theater doing my best Norrington impression: “That was without doubt the worst musical I’ve ever heard of.”
Here’s the distinction– La La Land is a great movie. It’s just not a musical. Again, for you in the back, La La Land IS NOT A MUSICAL.
If that’s news to you, chances are you left the theater at least a little frustrated with the whole thing. Ye true students of the Musical Proper (read: nerds), I’m guessing you left feeling underwhelmed by the frankly underwhelming display of song and dance. As for the rest of ye otherwise enjoyers of musicals, I dunno didn’t you just kind of feel like something was a bit… different about it all? And that ENDING tho. I’m not saying they missed the mark. I’m saying they precisely hit the mark, it just was a different mark than you might have expected. And like I said, if you were expecting a musical, you were probably hoping for…
- Music. Yes, technically LLL has music. But most of it isn’t real Musical music. For one, there was the obvious “these are not professional singers nor are they trying to sing out of their wheelhouse” vibe. For another, there were zero grandstanding power numbers (arguably until the end with what’s-her-face’s audition of course), zero act-ending finales, and zero of a lot of other Musical things like…
- Expository Songs. Within the first two or three songs, every musical has at least one number in which any and all main characters lyrically divulge pretty much everything you need to know about who they are and what they want. This sets the viewer up nicely for the rest of the story, and for everyone who was completely caught off-guard by the plot of LLL, you’ll now be realizing this didn’t happen.
- Plot-Driving Songs. Musicals are Musicals because they are musical. The plot, the conflicts, the characters, the EVERYTHING is carried forward via the magical medium of, you guessed it, music. Which makes LLL starkly different, because not a single song in the show carries the plot forward (again, arguably until what’s-her-face’s audition. arguably.). Instead, every song is about the very moment it takes place (which is important) and specifically the mindsets of the characters at those moments (also important). Otherwise, it’s all the non-musical parts of LLL in which the story progresses, and that’s just not in the Musical spirit of things.
- Collective & Unified Musical Cast. There are exactly 2 1/2 songs in the entire movie in which everybody seems to be “in on it”, a term used here to describe how musicals usually assume an entire universe of choreographed interaction. But in LLL it’s really only our two main characters who seem to know they’re in a musical. Except that they aren’t, a point which I’ll soon bring home but first…
- Dare-I-Say-Predictable Ending. Come on. Admit it. They got you. You thought what’s-his-face and what’s-her-face were gonna live happily ever after because we all thought that. Don’t worry, it was a dirty trick they pulled: in any real Musical the final, grand-finale song and dance reprise would resolve the plot and give all the good guys everything the song says they get. If the song is about love, they fall in love. If it’s about redemption, then sure as Javert that’s what’s gonna happen. So when our LLL heroes dance one final number to their song it’s like watching a beautiful train wreck in slow motion and the passengers are all our hopes and dreams and this is upsetting me again so I’m just going to get on with my point.
Basically, for our TL;DR readers… It’s all in their heads. The first clue is in the title itself: La La Land, a devilishly clever play on the city of L.A. and the fantasy realm where our daydreams threaten to overtake our reality. It’s the illusion which will be inevitably shattered by the seemingly random dictates of real life. And such is exactly the story for our leading lad and lady. Speaking of expository songs, just think about the opening number (aka the second clue), in which a jam-packed highway suddenly becomes the stage for a delightful diddy as everyone displays an improbable propensity for car-themed choreography. As soon as the final note plays out, all returns to its normal, drab, frustrating reality. Folks, that’s the whole show.
The third clue lies in the movie-musicals-past stylistic homage of it all. Whenever our two love birds got that lovin’ feelin’, they sing and dance all their cares away. This should not be news to you. But you might not have noticed, at least not consciously, how familiar it all seemed. Don’t worry, you’re about to. Take a gander:
It’s not plagiarism, it’s brilliance. “Love” in the dreaming minds of what’s-their-faces is all about the fantasy, the whimsical dance and cheeky song of Hollywood past. But in this movie, the music stops. Life hits. Reality is much less fanciful. And in one of the movie’s most crucial moments of symbolism, the music he plays in “real life” ends up being much less magical for her than what they had in their own little (yeah, imma say it) la la land.
Which brings us to the ending. THAT ending. Ugh. Yes, it’s all the more heartbreaking realizing that the dream was doomed from the start, but that’s what makes it all the more relatable. After years of facing reality head on– and, mind you, both succeeding quite nicely at it– our two long-lost lovers take one last walk, not down memory lane but into La La Land, the only place where they could or would ever be together. The final note plays out, and all returns to its normal, (often) drab, (frequently) frustrating reality. La La Land is not a Musical. It is a musically-charged expression of the fantasies which keep us going, but which cannot sustain forever. “Here’s to the fools who dream, crazy as they may seem. Here’s to the hearts that break. Here’s to the mess we make.”