And the Oscar for Best Original Music Score goes to… La La Land. After catching up on the drama that had unfolded on Sunday night in my home state of California, I couldn’t resist pure delight at the news that the likes of “Someone in the Crowd”, “City of Stars”, and “Another Day of Sun” had received the recognition they deserve. In the context of La La Land, the score is, well, everything. It matters. It’s a musical.
I love musicals. I always have. From Judy Garland striking up a tune on the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe as it speeds through the wild west to top hats and tap shoes emerging unexpectedly from offstage in the latest stage version of Aladdin – “EVERYONE has a minor in dance!” The Genie proclaims – musicals in film and on stage inhabit a unique place in the American imagination, and certainly in mine. Having a bummer of a day? “There’s a sunny side to every situation.” Feeling a bit nostalgic? “Edelweiss.” Can’t get enough of a good time? “I can’t be bothered now.” Waking up a bit blue? “Good morning, Baltimore.” Rather smitten? “I could be happy with you.” I love music generally in all forms and genres, but the musical can change a mood or capitalize on a sentiment at a speed which puts a good concerto to shame. All it takes is the opening note and the dance sequence is off and running, changing reality with every change in key.
Indeed, in order for the musical to work, it demands of the audience a suspension of reality – a challenge to the status quo. We have to let go of the improbability of an entire town coming together to herald in song the arrival of the Wells Fargo Wagon. We have to play along as the lights dim and a love-struck character shares with us the pinings of his heart in perfectly-composed melody while the rest of the plot momentarily fades away. We have to allow chimney sweeps to dance on the rooftops of London and princesses to let it go on snow-covered mountains in Scandinavia.
But in this particular musical, stylised in the old school but set in today’s world, it’s not just the irresistible dancing sequence in the all-too-familiar California traffic jam or the effortless transcendence from ground to stars in the Planetarium that demand a suspension of reality in La La Land. And here is where – if you haven’t seen the film – I suggest you stop reading.
It’s the moment when 21st-century technology is artistically avoided that the film plays most with the imagination of the audience. If La La Land was a practically-minded drama category film, it’s altogether quite obvious that the characters Mia and Sebastian would have known of each other’s movements well in advance of their chance re-encounter five years after their matching shoes tapped in sync. Sebastian – a successful musician and entrepreneur – would have used Instagram to advertise his new jazz club, Seb’s. Mia – because she and Sebastian had been connected on Facebook – would have received this notification of Sebastian’s new venture, and wouldn’t have been able to resist following along as he documented his startup. She would have glimpsed its interiors, musicians, and signature drinks in beautifully-filtered photographs posted online. Meanwhile, as Mia marries and becomes a new mom, her social media posts would include at least a few precious photos of the darling little girl she and her husband cherish so much. And so even if Sebastian had hidden Mia from his newsfeed to ease the pang of moving on, his sister and brother-in-law – who we know from previous scenes had met Mia – wouldn’t have resisted passing along the news, and also alerting him that Mia had moved back to LA. Connectivity can be curated, but it cannot be eradicated in 2017. In real life – as distinct from musical-life – connectivity cannot be ignored. La La Land’s producers were right to demand that we play along. It’s the 21st-Century equivalent of pretending that war couldn’t possibly meddle with a White Christmas in Vermont.
Having spent countless hours at new product launches for the likes of Google and Facebook, I often marvel at how often “serendipity” is used to describe a new product feature in the Silicon Valley. Serendipitous connectivity via technology is by no means banal: these spontaneous connections, comments, and conversations online can be extraordinary. I love technology for it.
But the old-fashioned world of the Hollywood musical isn’t about the serendipity of technology; it’s about the magic that happens in spite of what’s technically possible. The ultimate romance in La La Land stems from a sequence when a modern audience is asked – if only briefly – to both let the practicalities of dancing in black tie along the Seine and the absence of online news feeds chronicling the moment unrealistically coexist. It’s a cinematically beautiful moment. It’s also a profound one. Asking an audience to pretend that social media doesn’t exist demands us to unapologetically play along. And so we should.
To enjoy a musical – to really, truly engage with it in its original art form as brought to life by the classics, from Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire to Debbie Reynolds and Julie Andrews – we have to suspend cynicism. Musicals are the antidote to real life. When you need a pair of tap shoes in La La Land, they’re in your bag. In real life, you have forgotten them at home just when you feel that tap coming on. Or more to the point, you don’t have them at all. Because in real life, we don’t tap dance at all. That’s why we go to the movies.
Producing an old-fashioned, tap dancing musical in the 21st century was a brave move. The social contract between audience and film has changed in the same way that so much of society has. The trust that your audience will allow you to suspend belief isn’t really a guarantee in today’s world, when civility, respect, and dignity – whether in conversation or in chorus line – is challenged by those on whose shoulders the example matters most.
Just as America needed Hamilton to re-imagine an art form and put our own history squarely front and center stage, so America needed a classic musical in that old-fashioned, suspension-of-belief sort of way. We needed a musical that brought together colors and smiles, energy and optimism, iconic benches and timeless lampposts that transform a song in the rain into singing in the rain. We needed a musical that asked us to pretend our phones in our pockets don’t preclude an ending that is otherwise so perfectly, so unbelievably, so imaginatively rendered. We might need California to connect us, but we also need California to disconnect us – to remind us of what’s possible when we let go our realities and settle into the dance sequences that replace logic with, well, La La Land.
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Elizabeth Linder is the Founder & CEO of The Conversational Century. A California native, she is based in London.