Swept away by La La Land

I am watching La La Land because I simply can’t stop myself.  This movie is just perfection.  It’s like the writer created something that was a magical blend of old movie splendor and modern fun.  I watched musicals whenever I had a chance when I was a kid and spent hours researching my favourite stars.  I knew more about dancers, singers and producers than I did about my schoolwork – why didn’t they want to know about Fred Astaire’s relationship with his choreographer and doppleganger Hermes Pan on any test I wrote?  I just don’t know what was wrong with my teachers…

Directed and written by Damien Chazelle (he also wrote and directed the multiple award-winning movie Whiplash from 2014), with outstanding lyrics by the Broadway darlings Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, La La Land features a romance that will capture your heart.  It begins with a marvelous 150-person dance routine that takes place during a traffic jam on a freeway in Los Angeles and their voices swell to music that includes notes made by car horns.  It’s so clever and the footwork, camera angles, and vibrant costumes work together to make that first number – “Another Day of Sun”- so compelling that I said, as we walked out of the theatre, that there would be no dancing on top of our car.  It’s that kind of movie – you feel swept away by the music and the emotion. Almost as if you might dance on top of your Honda here in Waterloo in the theatre parking lot.

Emma Stone plays the part of an aspiring actress, named Mia, working as a barista on the Warner Brothers backlot when she meets musician Ryan Gosling, playing the part of Sebastian, who is trying to pull together enough cash to open a very specific kind of jazz bar.  It’s boy-meets-girl-with-a-misunderstanding-thrown-in so that their eventual spark means even more.  Their next meeting is just the last word in meet cutes because it happens while poor Mia is in the middle of a horrible conversation with a man at a party and Sebastian is playing in an ’80s cover band.  They are a very well-turned-out cover band (maybe bands in L.A. always look that good?) and play songs that were splendid at that time and they certainly worked for Mia in 2016.  Their romance is charming and the chemistry between the two lead actors is a perfect match for all of the singing and dancing required for this movie, although I have never been sure when singing and dancing might not be required.

Awards and love have poured down on everyone involved with this film and I agree that the acclaim is well deserved.  I have always believed the idea that singing a song makes any activity more fun – Mary Poppins told us this with her spoonful of sugar theory and I never disagree with Mary Poppins.  I think that deciding whether or not La La Land ushers in a new generation of movie musicals deserves some time in your DVD player.  We also have the soundtrack here on the shelves at WPL and it really is going to make your life so much better – you could listen to it and relive your favourite scenes.  It will make everyday chores and driving around town go by much faster because you will be singing while you do it. Just remember that there can be no dancing on the top of cars.

-Penny M.

Hamilton

What we’re listening to in our house right now is actually what we are listening to in our house and in our cars because we listen to the same thing all the time right now – the soundtrack of the Broadway musical Hamilton: An American Musical.

I did this a lot when when I was a kid and would visit the music collection in the Main Library in Hamilton to bring home my favourites to play over and over but I never imagined it would happen to my own family. I know that my father was a little tired of hearing me sing “I Like to be in America” (West Side Story), and disagreed when I sang “It’s the Hard Knock life” (Annie) because it clearly wasn’t, and probably wanted me to find out how I could “solve a problem like Maria” (The Sound of Music) sooner, rather than later.

As for our family getting tired of singing about the scrappy American founding father, Alexander Hamilton, I don’t think I need to rush things. There are soulful ballads, jazz, R&B, a smattering of old fashioned Tin Pan Alley stuff, gorgeous show tunes with the full cast singing with all their heart (like when you sing along in your car at a stoplight and the person next to you tries not to look), and some truly amazing hip-hop. It doesn’t matter which track we play – they are all ‘good ones’.

I really do think that ball of sunshine, Lin Manuel-Miranda, is outstanding. His voice on the soundtrack, which is all we have to go by right now until he is back onstage performing the title role and we are lucky enough to secure tickets, is just superb. From the lightning quick cabinet room rap battles to the poignant lullaby he sings to his newborn son I just don’t feel like it is possible to tire of his voice. He plays the part of Alexander Hamilton to perfection from earnest aide de camp, attractive suitor to Elizabeth Schuyler, uncompromising lawyer and heartbroken father. The first time we listened to the soundtrack from beginning to end I found myself weeping in our kitchen. Twice. I won’t say what caused my outburst because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but even if you know the details of Alexander Hamilton’s death (this isn’t a spoiler as his birth and death dates are well known – 1755-1804) you will be moved by Lin Manuel-Miranda’s voice in the final moments of the musical.

Manuel-Miranda’s writing voice is just as wonderful as his singing voice. We are always talking about the way he is able to make us laugh and think as we enjoy the songs. I have said to our kids that if anyone at our house ever fails an exam which involves this period of American history there will be a severe punishment because by now they should have internalized it all. He lays out the basics of the significant battles, dates and the big names like Washington, Yorktown, King George III, Lafayette, Jefferson and hits the high notes with the writing of the American constitution but it is so clever that every few moments you can’t help but be amazed by the genius of the writing. It’s like he is channeling the lyrical brilliance of Sondheim, Gilbert & Sullivan, Rodgers & Hammerstein with musical influences coming from every genre. It’s magical. It makes you snap your fingers and want to dance along, try to rap as fast as they do (only when my kids aren’t looking).

Alexander Hamilton lived for less than 50 years but his impact on their country was incredible – to say he was an American founding father really isn’t enough – and it was a chance encounter with a book* (!) that Lin Manuel-Miranda read on vacation that led him to start thinking about setting this extraordinary story to music. I’m so glad that he did. I can wash my dishes so much more enthusiastically when I am listening to something like “Guns and Ships” where Aaron Burr says:

How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower
Somehow defeat a global superpower?
How do we emerge victorious from the quagmire?
Leave the battlefield waving Betsy Ross’ flag higher?
Yo. Turns out we have a secret weapon!
An immigrant you know and love who’s unafraid to step in!
He’s constantly confusin’, confoundin’ the British henchmen
Ev’ryone give it up for America’s favourite fighting Frenchman!

And the entire company sings back with an enthusiastic:

Lafayette!

It’s a sensational use of language and each member of the cast does it perfectly. Their enunciation knocks my socks off every time and, when I was a kid I would lift the needle off of the record carefully and place it back to re-listen to try and figure out the lyrics but today you can go online and see endless analysis of each word, find the actors and super-fans on Twitter and Instagram to see minute-by-minute reviews as the cast prepares for performances. It’s a rabbit hole that I find myself enjoying because they seem as enthusiastic about the beauty of the music as the long list of people who have seen their show or are waiting for tickets. In the meantime we have the next best thing right here on the shelves here at WPL. Well, not exactly on the shelf because, well, it will probably be checked out. We’re talking about the music of Hamilton: An American Musical here, you know. It’s a Broadway sensation and you get to keep it for 3 weeks once you sign it out and customers do not bring it back early. They can’t. They are so busy listening to it in their cars and in their kitchens. They are listening to it non-stop.

— Penny M.

* the book that Lin Manuel-Miranda read and was so captivated by was Ron Chernow’s extremely well-reviewed Alexander Hamilton, from 2004, which we also have available here at the Waterloo Public Library.