What’s In a Musical? Music Man, Guy and Madeline, and La La Land (watchlist #73)

Possibly one of the greatest musicals of all time, Morton Decosta’s The Music Man is, in my opinion, the baseline template for what a musical film should be. It features captivating performances, fantastic choreography, and the catchiest songs you’ve ever heard. Robert Preston plays a redemptive con man brilliantly; his slightly devilish features oozing swagger and charisma. When he preaches that there is “Trouble in River City”, we almost believe it.

This is a film with very interesting cinematography. Not because it is particularly innovative or even impressive; but because the camera remains still almost the entire time. The majority of shots are wide and static, just capturing everything in the scene. There is no particular “art” to it; the entertainment is what the camera captures, not how it captures it. I believe this is Decosta’s best impression of a stage. Music Man began on broadway, and shots that scarcely move at all are the perfect way to hearken back to that.

In 2009 Damien Chazelle examined this and decided to tweak established tradition with Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.

“The idea was to kind of smash two things together. Jittery doc-style footage with the kind of music I loved from old musicals

His first feature-length film is a bizarre creation, but a respectable effort. The way that he captures intimate moments is quite impressive and gives the movie an organic beauty despite its minimalistic plot. We see a man teaching his mother to play the piano, a juggler performing on the street, and a live jazz performance that are all real events. The fact that most of the “actors” are real musicians making their screen debut only adds to the authenticity factor. In this way, Guy and Madeline‘s most striking weakness — its low-budget — is its greatest strength. A lesser but more expensive film would have staged all of these moments, and it would show.

Guy and Madeline is however nowhere near as engaging as a real musical. It goes scenes at a time without a single note being sung, and its cobweb-flimsy plot is not helped by the many totally misplaced extreme close-ups and one very odd scene where an older man hits on a young woman that features the line — this is not a joke, it really says this — “I’m not a sexual predator, I’m a retired cop”. This film is not a recommendation of mine, unless you are a big fan of Damien Chazelle (which I have become in the past months) but The Music Man absolutely is. I want to make it clear that the next couple paragraphs of gushing are not intended in any way, shape, or form to degrade those two films. Music man is an unforgettable entry into the catalogue of the musical genre, and Guy and Madeline is a strange experiment within that genre that works only because at its core, every good movie is a strange experiment. With all of that said…

La La Land (Chazelle’s 2016 masterpiece for anyone who’s unaware) is freaking amazing! It almost transcends analysis or explanation of why it is great. It. Just. Is. But I’m going to try anyway. Where to start…

What a lovely night

The characters are fantastic for one thing. Emma Stone’s Mia is an aspiring actress, fully willing to act out any part she must, no matter how ridiculous or embarrassing. Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian is equally compelling. He reminded me of every jazz musician I’ve ever known. He accepts nothing short of musical perfection, playing and listening to the same two seconds of a song over and over again. These characters could not be more different, but their unbridled ambition unites them.

If that’s not enough, this film is hilarious. It is a situational humor that permeates the story, not that of the quippy desperate variety that dominates hollywood these days. Sebastian’s hatred of a samba and tapas bar that stands in the place of a historic jazz club runs throughout. The moment in which he finally exacts his revenge on the building could not be funnier.

A musical is only as good as its music, and composer Justin Hurwitz does not dissapoint. His songs are woven together but each stands on thieir own. The songs are written in the style of old musicals but have a richness to them that few other soundtracks manage to come close to. My favorite song is probably “A Lovely Night” which is a brilliant moment in the movie as a whole where our soon to be lovers dance together while contrarily remarking on how impossible a relationship would be. There is a particularly triumphant moment midway through the song where the horns crescendo and the dance picks up. The frission at that juncture is unreal.

As it happens, Chazelle is also a great cinematographer, and his work with Linus Sandgren is beyond compare. Definitely 2016’s best. It’s hard to pick out just one scene that exemplifies the movie’s excellent camera movement because there really isn’t one. Every single solitary frame is amazing. Sandgren favors long takes that show the surrounding fervor with nearly as much excitement. At a pool party when people begin diving in, the cameraman apparently jumps as well, submerging and spinning around and around until a watery blur is the only thing visible. Then the camera glances up, and the sky erupts in fireworks. It’s this sort of glorious spectacle that is most visually stimulating about this film.

Here is a movie with a striking innocence to it. The relaionship that we see unfold is unreal in its idealstic portrayal. The way that love stories happen in the movies; the way that people wish they would happen in real life. This is a movie that is largely built on the bricks of past cinematic traditions, but its time of release seems rather intentional (and I don’t mean releasing in late december to get a leg up in the oscar race). This film feels like deliberate counterprogramming to what was and still is going on in every form of media possible. La La Land is not a portriat of the times. It is an escape from them; a rallying cry to rebels, bullet souls, and pebble tossers everywhere; a shout from a megaphone: “Keep On Dreaming!”

For Your Viewing Pleasure


  1. A musical is a blend of acting, singing, and dancing. It gives this beautiful kind of escape as you begin to go on a journey of the characters and forget the troubles that are going on in your life. Musicals obviously need to have good songs, because if they don’t than the musical is not that good and you have a hard time seeing the characters and the plot. It is hard for me even as a musical fan to describe what exactly is a musical

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. Its an inexplicable combination of cinematic and musical elements that go into it. I suppose not being able to explain why a musical is good is a sign that it has achieved its goal


      • You want musicals to successfully tell a story especially through the songs. You need good songs in order to actually notice the plot and really get to know the characters. The songs are where the emotional core of a musical is

        Liked by 1 person

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