I had read all the reviews before going to see La La Land and I just couldn’t wait. I think it was the afternoon after the opening night, I was in a pantomime in Wimbledon and a big group of the performers all raced down to see it. We were buzzing. The opening number came and we were on our feet cheering, but as the film went along, well, I think I had expected a cross between Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story and Top Hat. I thought that the story would be told through dance, and it wasn’t. It is a film with music and dance, not a dance film. So I had to adjust my thinking, judge it on its own level, its own merits. And in that way, it is very enjoyable. I do think it is a film for our times. We all want a bit of joy in our lives and it certainly brings that.
Another Day of Sun (opening scene)
The film’s choreographer, Mandy Moore, is brilliant. Most significantly, the scene captures the joy of movement. There was a bit of everything – hip-hop, jazz dance, contemporary, gymnastics. You could see the dancers were hired for all those skills, an incredible thing for a choreographer to be able to work with. It’s also fantastic for audiences to see the various styles. It helps dance as an art form to grow and expand.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not professional dancers, though he has more technique and style than she does. Emma doesn’t embody dance as a dancer would, there isn’t a lot of technique, there isn’t even a lot of style. But she has rhythm, she has timing, and she never looks uncomfortable. For a non-dancer, that’s fantastic. It’s charming, in a sense, if you’re not expecting any more than that.
Gosling, on the other hand, can act a bloody good dance. He’s no Fred Astaire – Astaire was airbound and Gosling is certainly earthbound. However, he’s obviously studied Astaire and he does a perfectly good imitation of what style is about. He had some dance training as a kid and he can look out through that screen, at the audience, and say: “I’m a dancer”.
The tap routine is very basic, it’s simple but it’s sweet. In the section where they’re sitting on the bench, the storytelling between them is exceptional. There are simple heel twists, but done to such a spectacular musical arrangement that the moment becomes exciting. As the number builds, the choreography becomes more complex and the fun they get out of the jazz runs and Emma doing a jeté en tournant (a turning jump) is so utterly joyful it loses the need for technique. But the more I watch the sequence, the more I become disillusioned with their ability to dance. The movement isn’t sharp, the obvious dubbing of the tap sounds helps to make you believe they can dance, as opposed to the reality. Ryan does three barrel turns, which would be much higher from a dancer normally.
Score: 7/10. It was not polished, but you felt it was two real people dancing. It was beautifully attempted.
This is where they were shown to be non-dancers more than any other scene, because a waltz is so difficult. We expect waltzes to be beautiful, with a perfect hold, timing and footwork; the heel leads, the spacing between them should be consistent. That technique wasn’t there, but I think it wasn’t demanded. It wasn’t important. Their expressions of love, romance and being together were shown through dance, and in that sense it wins. It is much more about waltzing together as a couple and keeping in 3/4 time than the technical waltzes we see on Strictly Come Dancing, where the hold is so important and the man is leading the woman.
The section where they’re dancing in silhouette, I don’t for a minute think that was them. I remember thinking: “Wow!” And then: “Oh, I wonder who doubled?” The magic of the double!
Score: 8/10, for sheer spirit, especially if technique doesn’t matter and joy does.
Arlene Phillips was talking to Lyndsey Winship. Phillips is choreographing Grease: The Musical, which goes on tour in March.
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