Good musicals have good songs, and 'La La Land' doesn't

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone watching a better movie than 'La La Land' Lionsgate

Look, it’s bad enough that the Oscars will happen this weekend (every! damn! year!) but do we have to give La La Land an award for its lousy songs?

Now, I am not a professional film critic, so I’m not going to discuss whether La La Land is a good movie or not. (It isn’t.) But as a professional music critic I do feel qualified to declare, with all the weight of my authority, that the songs in La La Land are -- and I apologize in advance for using this highly technical professional music-critical term here -- bad.

Since La La Land is a movie musical, you’d think that having bad songs would be a hindrance. Like if I said to you “Let’s make a movie musical,” you might respond, “Well, we’d sure better get some good songs for that!”

And if, in this scenario, I happened to be director Damien Chazelle and you were composer Justin Hurwitz, and you played me La La Land’s droopy hears-Chet-Baker-once piano theme “City of Stars,” my response would be, “Hmm, I wonder if there are any people out there who, while they may not be old Harvard buddies of mine, have proven that they can write songs that people like and remember, and perhaps have even based their career on that talent.” My response would not be “Great! Let’s get those guys who wrote a couple songs for NBC’s Smash to do the lyrics.”

(A quick aside: I thought maybe that typing La La Land wouldn’t be as painful as saying it out loud. I am apparently an optimistic fool.)

La La Land has spit up two nominees for Best Original Song, an award handed out by default in recent years to second-tier James Bond themes or Randy Newman, who's really the guy you should call if you need songs for a movie musical about Los Angeles. (If the Bond folks ever commission a tune from Randy, the Academy may have to retire this category.)

I already mentioned “City of Stars,” which you can recreate on your own by taking piano lessons till you’re 12, abandoning the instrument entirely for about 15 years, then sitting down at a keyboard and playing the first few notes that come to mind. And there’s “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” which is like a botched Ecce Homo restoration of “The Rainbow Connection.” No, hold on, it’s the version of “The Rainbow Connection” that wicked muppets are condemned to wail for eternity in Muppet Hell while adorable muppet devils with pitchforks dance around them. (Now that's an idea for musical. Call me, Mr. Weinstein.)

The good news is that the vote could be split between the two songs, rewarding Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adequately cute Moana tune “How Far I’ll Go” or Justin Timberlake for his glib, unobjectionable “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”

But Hurwitz will still win for Best Original Score, even though what he’s turned in is nothing more (and maybe even a little less) than a technically assured composer’s vague memory of the songs he once heard in better musicals, an approximation that comes off like a bad police sketch of a barely glimpsed suspect. Forget the nominated star showcases -- its the “jazzy” and “theatrical” vibe of the two featureless group numbers, “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd,” that really spotlight Hurwitz’s limitations.

I can't even talk about the lyrics.

You want to talk 2016 film music? There was more inventive Hollywood spritz packed into Channing Tatum's romp through “No Dames” in Hail Caesar! than in all of La La Land (which, let me tell you, was not a short movie). The gawkily charming recreation of ‘80s new wave in Sing Street puts to shame Chazelle-Hurwitz's color-saturated attempts at genre homage. And Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, while not technically a musical, is a vibrant and accurate a depiction of how people (especially young people) interact with their favorite music as they go about their lives.

I don’t mention these as examples of what La La Land “should have done,” just to indicate how much movies can accomplish when their makers really care about the music they're working with. Does Damien Chazelle even like music? For two consecutive films now, he's presented musicians as tormented male obsessives whose performances lack any spirit of play or joy. His fascination with that sensibility might explain why the biggest flaw in a movie that has no shortage of them is its songs.

In conclusion, the only "La La Land" we acknowledge is Demi's.

 


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