Two Musicals

Last week I watched not one but two musical movies. These two movies are about as different from one another as you can imagine; in fact, about the only thing they have in common is that they are musical movies. One is a “traditional” style of musical in which the characters do the “break into song and dance” thing, a la the old classic musicals of the MGM and Warners era, while the other is a kind of mashup of a rockumentary and romance film about a performing duo, so the music is a part of the movie in terms of performance.

I adored both movies. They were La La Land and Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.

I’ll start with Eurovision. It opens in an Iceland household, sometime a few decades ago, when Lars, the son of a local fisherman (played by Pierce Brosnan in a craggy, growling performance that will remind no one of James Bond) forms his lifelong dream: to perform in the Eurovision Song Contest for Iceland, with his best friend, local girl Sigrit, as his duet partner. The film shifts to these two in adulthood as they are still pursuing this dream, even while they perform nonsense songs for the local bar crowd. Events ensue that lead them to that very Eurovision stage, with some of those events being much more improbable than others. If you’ve seen any version of the “Young musicians from the backwater try to make it big” story, you can see virtually every plot turn in his movie coming from a mile away…but there are surprises, as the way the movie gets the plot to unfold is, at times, surprising in the most delightful way. For instance–and I will say no more about it than this–the famous Icelandic Huldufolk, the “hidden people” who live in a magical parallel world and are said to occasionally visit our world to delve briefly into the affairs of humans, may or may not end up playing a role in a particularly sticky point in the story.

It doesn’t really matter if this movie’s twists and turns are obvious. You know Lars and Sigrit are going to make it to Eurovision, and you know that they are going to get closer and closer–maybe closer than they should. You know that they’ll suffer a major setback right when it seems they are on the cusp of victory, and you know that they’ll have to break up but then meet again when events somehow conspire to get them back on the Eurovision stage. This is one of those movies where you’re not seeing what happens next, but rather how the next thing happens.

And you’re also watching for the music. At least, I hope you are. This movie is chock-a-block with some of the most delightfully, zanily weird music I’ve ever heard in a movie. Imagine Icelandic pop songs given the prog rock treatment, with stage productions that are as over the top as you might imagine–and that’s just what you’d imagine in a movie with this plot description. But it’s also a Will Ferrell movie, and even if you don’t like Will Ferrell (I love him, personally), you can never accuse him of not giving himself entirely to the task at hand. And the task here is to play an almost endlessly optimistic dreamer of an aspiring Icelandic rock star whose dreams and vision might exceed his talent. Maybe.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a gorgeous film to watch and hear, and the acting is really top-notch, given how pretty much everyone is required to be over-the-top throughout. Did I mention Brosnan’s growling, snarling Icelandic fisherman? I did? Well, I’m mentioning him again. And Rachel McAdams as Sigrit is a perfect foil for Ferrell’s Lars; both are weirdly naive, but they’re weirdly naive in different ways, resulting in a couple that’s two adorkably clueless people trying to navigate a world they don’t really understand but desperately want to inhabit.

Oh, and Sigrit spends much of the movie rocking a cute pair of overalls. I report, folks.

Some critics think this movie was overlong, with too much music or whatnot. For me, it was perfect. I loved it.


Then there’s La La Land, which I though came out much more recently than it did. I honestly thought it came out either during COVID or just shortly before, but it actually arrived in 2016. Netflix kept suggesting La La Land to me, but I kept resisting, until the suggestion was accompanied by the warning: “Leaving Soon”. So, one night last week when I was home alone, I decided to finally watch it.

A few days after that, when I was not home alone, I asked The Wife if she wanted to watch a movie, and I cued up La La Land again.

I absolutely loved this movie. Loved loved loved this movie.

La La Land is a full-on musical in the grand old fashion. It even starts with a “vintage”-style animation for the studio logo, and when the film’s title finally appears onscreen, also in the “grand old style”, it takes up the entire screen, with a copyright notice in small print down at the bottom. The movie opens with a Big Ensemble Number, which unfolds during an LA traffic jam. Then we meet our protagonists: Mia (Emma Stone), who is on her way to work but isn’t focused on driving as much as her phone call, and Seb (Ryan Gosling), who is also on his way to work but is stuck behind Mia. He lays on the horn, she gives him the one-finger salute. That would be the end of it, if this weren’t an old-school Hollywood musical being made in 2016. Of course Mia and Seb are going to meet again. Of course they are going to make bad impressions on each other, which will culminate in a song-and-dance number about the fact that they have made bad impressions on each other. And of course that very song and dance number will be when their impressions of each other start to shift the other way.

Mia is an aspiring actress who works at the coffee shop on the Warners lot, so she gets to serve the Big Stars who come in for coffee before she goes off to an audition, still in her coffee shop uniform of a white blouse and black pants. (Of course she’s going to plow into a customer and end up with coffee all over her white blouse and of course she’s not going to have time to change so of course she’ll audition with the coffee stained shirt, not get the part, and end up walking down the hallway from the talent office back to the elevator, passing a dozen other white-shirted baristas hoping to land the same role.

Meanwhile, Seb is a chronically behind-on-his-bills jazz pianist, so of course his apartment is a spartan mess and of course his car is the one good thing he owns. Of course his current job is being the piano player in a local lounge, and of course he chafes against playing the set list as written (it’s December, so it’s Christmas tunes). Of course he veers off course in the middle of a Christmas carol and instead goes on an improvisational tear, which leads to his firing. Of course his next gig is playing synth for an 80s cover band. (A scene where Mia is at the same party he’s playing, recognizes him, and tweaks him by requesting that the band play “I Ran” is one of the movie’s biggest laughs.)

La La Land‘s first hour isn’t surprising at all, but that’s not the point. These two characters are sympathetic and likeable, even if they don’t like each other just yet, and the musical numbers are really catchy and well-shot and excellently choreographed. Neither Gosling nor Stone is really endowed with a singer’s voice, but both do very well with what they’ve got, and the dancing is the real star here, anyway. As they segue from not liking one another to wooing one another, often in the backdrop of great music and great movies, the courtship culminates in a magical number set at the Griffith Observatory. This number is when I committed to loving this movie. (This movie makes me want to go to Los Angeles, which is saying something. I’ve nothing against LA, particularly, but it’s never been a place I want to visit, either.)

Stone and Gosling have considerable chemistry together, and it’s never hard to believe either of them, either separately as an aspiring actress and an aspiring jazz club owner, or together as a couple trying to enable each others’ passions and dreams while recognizing along the way that each is at times backing away from those dreams and settling for a life of unsatisfying comfort over a life of never backing down. Their relationship develops in a logical way and takes them to places that make sense.

It’s no surprise that their relationship is tested more and more as both Mia and Seb get closer to their dreams, in ways that seem to be costing them in terms of themselves and each other. The film’s ultimate resolution of their love story is bittersweetly satisfying, culminating in a long montage-like dance number that is so clearly modeled on the “Broadway Melody” ballet from Singin’ in the Rain that I was almost expecting a young hoofer to enter from stage right, singing “Gotta dance!” This is absolutely a homage and not a theft, though; ultimately La La Land is a modern love letter to the great musicals of Hollywood’s studio era. And this, I suppose, is a love letter to La La Land. What a wonderful movie.

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One Response to Two Musicals

  1. Roger says:

    I liked La La Land. I think it took some heat because it wasn’t High Cinema, or something.

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