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Debunking the La La Land myth: movie musicals are not a risk

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Courtesy of TIFF

La La Land’s actors, producers, and songwriters, plus director / screenwriter Damien Chazelle, all had plenty of time to talk about their movie at the Golden Globes last night. They were on stage to accept awards for the film seven times, a ceremony record. Emma Stone, receiving the award for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical, called the nostalgic classic Hollywood musical extravaganza a movie “for dreamers.” Damien Chazelle, accepting the award for Best Screenplay, thanked his producers for “not blanching at what must have seemed like an utterly insane proposition.” Later, when the producers accepted the award for Best Picture: Comedy or Musical, they called the idea of an original musical “an utter fantasy,” and thanked Lionsgate for “ignoring and dismissing all conventional wisdom” by financing it.

The overarching narrative of La La Land, as parroted at last night’s awards (and only slightly less potently throughout its press tour), is that it’s a wonder the film was ever made. Yes, original movie musicals are rare. It’s not often that a director as young as Chazelle is given such creative freedom. La La Land is a technical feat and a pretty good movie. But describing the miraculousness of its birth with reverence usually reserved for the Immaculate Conception is little more than awards-season mythologizing.

Musicals are not a risk, and Lionsgate financing La La Land doesn’t make the studio generous, optimistic, or an ally to creatives. It was a smart choice.

2016, you could argue, was the safest year in decades to release a movie musical. The year came off the heels of the not-unprecedented billion-dollar Hamilton phenomenon (how quickly did we all forget about Wicked?) and the steady return of the musical format on television (Glee, then Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Galavant, American Horror Story, and The Get Down).

Even the risk-adverse execs who run network television were getting on board, with a bizarre arms race between Fox and NBC to produce the best (or most lovably sloppy) live revivals of classic musicals most children have never even heard of. Musicals are cool right now, as evidenced by the participation of pop stars: Jennifer Hudson on Broadway in The Color Purple, Carly Rae Jepsen and Ariana Grande on TV in Grease Live! and Hairspray Live!, Chance the Rapper on a Hamilton tribute mixtape.

Even without the cool factor, musicals are a safe bet. There have been long stretches of time where musicals have not been cool (thank you, Andrew Lloyd Webber), and stage musicals flop on Broadway every year. But there have been few examples of a movie musical failing to earn back its cost. Even the muddy, weird 2004 adaptation of Phantom of the Opera (itself a muddy, weird show), more than doubled its budget.

Movie musicals almost always make money. The modern age of the movie musical arguably starts with Grease in 1978, which made $395 million off a $6 million budget and introduced the idea that musicals could be sexy / sell tickets to young people. In more recent memory — of the 23 musicals made by major studios in the last 10 years, 17 more than doubled their budget, and only three were undeniable flops (Nine, Rock of Ages, and the licensing nightmare Across the Universe). They’re all but a sure thing when, like La La Land, they can boast A-list stars with boundless charisma and proven market value. Anna Kendrick and Meryl Streep in Into the Woods brought in $213 million for Disney, two years after Les Misérables with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway grossed $442 million for Universal. Chicago, the last movie musical to win Best Picture at the Oscars, made $307 million, even opening at Christmas against a Scorsese original and a Lord of the Rings installment. Streep in Mamma Mia! in 2008 made $610 million on a $52 million budget.

True, La La Land is not based on an already culturally central Stephen Sondheim stage show, and it’s not a jukebox musical full of familiar songs. And that is rare for a musical film. But it’s not unheard of, and it’s certainly not one in a million. Almost every major Disney animated film is technically an original musical, and the studio’s recent output has been extremely popular and profitable: Moana, Frozen, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled. All these films featured works by major Broadway composers (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bobby Lopez, Randy Newman, Alan Menken) and made killings both at the box office and on iTunes. The Frozen soundtrack even infamously outsold Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled visual album.

mamma mia

Disney has also made live-action original musicals. In 2007, Enchanted brought Amy Adams to her broadest audience yet, and brought in $340 million at the global box office — making it the sixth highest grossing musical since 1974. The following year, High School Musical 3 (the only installment in that trilogy to debut in theaters instead of on television) made $253 million globally.

If La La Land was actually a risk, that isn’t due to its classic Hollywood plot, its odes to vintage Technicolor or tap-dance routines, its bankable stars, or even the fact that it’s a musical. It’s the reality that the original songs themselves are pretty thin. “City of Stars,” which won Best Original Song at the Golden Globes, is its only eminently recognizable tune, and it’s used at least eight times throughout the film. The “barn burner” Stone sings at the story’s climax is bland, and it steals so much from A Chorus Line’s legendary torch songWhat I Did for Love” and Cabaret’s volcanic title number that it almost sends the film’s claims to originality crashing down.

On the plus side, La La Land’s awards probably guarantee the musical a place atop the cultural heap for a little while longer. For whatever reason, people need constant assurance that musicals are still a good idea! Whatever it takes, so long as we get more and better musicals, and maybe some actors who can sing.