Three major original movie musicals were released in 2016. Disney’s animated Samoan adventure Moana, Damien Chazelle’s love letter to L.A. La La Land, and John Carney’s even more passionate love letter to post-punk England Sing Street. As this is the end of the year, and this is the ideal time to look back and size up our annual experiences, SoundTreks has arrived to declare one of these three films to be the best movie musical of 2016.
I know that Sing was also released this year, but that is a jukebox musical, and features no original music. A jukebox musical is its own entity, so I hasten to exclude it from the running. Apologies to fans of Sing. It can also be said that Swiss Army Man was a musical as well, although the characters in the film do very little singing themselves; the original songs, for the most part, appear on the soundtrack. It is also disqualified on a technicality.
The three musicals in question all feature original songs, sung in the film by the characters, and have songs that function as revelations of character. In short, they function the way musicals traditionally do, going back as far as Show Boat. Proper movie musicals are quite rare these days, at least outside of the purview of animation, and to have two live-action musical films in one year is something of a treat. The genre should never be allowed to entirely die out.
Let’s start with:
Moana – Music written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina
There are three interesting elements at play (or perhaps at war) in the music of Moana. On the one hand, we have a Broadway veteran – Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame – attempting to make the songs sound a little more showy and stage-appropriate. The Broadway influence can be heard in songs like “You’re Welcome,” a brag song performed by Maui (Dwayne Johnson), the cocky demigod. These are the kinds of songs that are fun to sing in the shower, and typically make for the most memorable moments from animated films. Have you forgotten “Let It Go” yet? No? Of course not. It’s branded on your brain.
Secondly, there is the Samoan influence. Moana is one of the only films I have encountered to feature the Tokelauan language, which is a Polynesian language spoken in American Samoa. The lead actors in the film are Hawai’ian and Samoan, and a lot of the musical details derive, I assume, from Samoan musical customs. This can be heard in “We Know the Way.” This song is, however, rendered toothless by the third element: The Disney factor.
You can hear this bland flattening of interesting material in almost all of Disney’s animated films, as they each feature very similar emotional beats. Moana, too, has a song about wanting more in the form of “How Far I’ll Go.” The “longing for more” trope has become so common in Disney films, it’s almost a snore. Indeed, this tertiary influence seems to flatten a lot of the more interesting music in Moana. The proud exception is the Bowie-influence performance of Jemaine Clement as a giant treasure-hoarding crab.
Sing Street – Music written by John Carney, Ken and Carl Papenfus (from Relish), Graham Henderson, and Zamo Riffman
The New Wave and post-punk era of the early 1980s were a pretty glorious time in pop music. Pop exploded in a big way at that time, and glam rock turned into something smaller and more intimate. The characters in Sing Street, when seeing a Duran Duran video (of “Rio”) decide that being a New Wave band is the best way not only to win the heart of a girl, but to truly realize one’s place in life. John Carney’s films all share that thesis: That making music is a transcendent experience, and those that do so live at a heightened emotional pitch, greater than that of ordinary people.
The songs in Sing Street reflect not only that passion, but are nearly good enough to pass for the real thing. The in-film band, also called Sing Street, is comprised of several no-talent teens, and one very talented teen, who manage to compose and construct the most amazing pop hits. The songs play out almost like parallel universe fantasies of what they ought to be. In a teen’s mind, this is how good he sounds. Never mind that kid wouldn’t be able to make something nearly that polished. Never mind that the film may have benefited from a good deal of grit on the soundtrack.
This is certainly a nostalgia piece, but it’s the sort of nostalgia that makes anyone long for it, even those who have no experience with the New Wave scene in ’80s England. And, like all Carney joints, it’s intensely and disarmingly emotional. This is a deep abiding love for music that is told in musical form. Its adoration for the time, and for live music, is the most apparent thing about Sing Street, and that affection is infectious.
La La Land – Music by Justin Hurwitz, lyrics by Pasek and Paul
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is a frustrating animal for sure. If you were raised on proper movie musicals – and especially if you were raised on Broadway musicals – you will immediately see the cracks in La La Land‘s false façade. The songs are bold and brassy… but not entirely slick. They reach for something they simply cannot achieve: the honest-to-goodness glitz of a Broadway production. The choreography on the opening number, “Another Day of Sun” is first rate, and it’s a glorious number, but the song fades into the back of the memory pretty quickly.
Indeed, I feel that way about most of the songs in La La Land. They are presented with energy and spirit, but they’re still not memorable. Plus, the young lead actors, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, are clearly straining against the limits of their song and dance talent, having learned the steps and the words, but lacking the ease of movement of someone who had clearly been singing and dancing for years. You can always tell when an actor spent years dancing, and when they simply learned to dance for the production they’re currently in. Watch Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger dance next to each other in Chicago. Zeta-Jones can dance. Zellweger is merely dancing.
The showstopper from La La Land is an audition piece from the Stone character, wherein she sings about dreaming. The number is called “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” and it’s average. It doesn’t have the genuine emotional outpouring of Sing Street. Indeed, compared to Sing Street, La La Land feels more artificial and constructed. I think that may be by design – the filmmakers don’t seem willing to let the audience to simply accept that this is unreality – but that might be what’s keeping me at arm’s length.
Sing Street is the winner here. It’s not a perfect film, but in terms of what a musical should do – and how the music should emotionally function within a film framework – it excels. Moana feels too typical for its own good. Disney has a long tradition of formula, and that formula is why audiences keep returning to their output, but creatively it’s always a hindrance. There have been few Disney animated features to be truly daring in terms of storytelling beyond the 1950s.
La La Land, meanwhile, is too ambitious. It wants to be in league with old-world Hollywood musicals, not realizing the virtuosity and talent that went into those old films. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers rehearsed until their feet bled. These posh young people merely took lessons for a few weeks, and it shows. The film is so content to be a musical, that it forgot to be a good musical.
Sing Street is earnest and emotional. The music is, yes, far too slick, but that’s not so horrid a distraction as to ruin the film entirely. The film’s clear love of all things New Wave is glorious and enjoyable, and it’s inspiring.
Top Image: Disney / Lionsgate / The Weinstein Company
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.