The coming "La La Land" wave is sure to ignite conversations about the movie musical — why it went away, how much it could come back, whether millennials' love for it can ever equal that of boomers'. What is musical love when it is, in the end, Ryan Gosling love?
But a different movie currently in theaters seeks to reinvent the musical — and re-charge the debate about it — in a very different way. The movie is the fact-based "London Road," and rather than whimsical/melancholic themes about following your dreams, it makes a more sober, and at times sordid, case for how songs can be deployed in cinema.
Centering on the fear that gripped the English town of Ipswich after a series of murders of prostitutes in the mid-2000s, Rufus Norris' movie doesn't feel like your typical musical. It doesn't even sound like your typical musical.
Written by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork, who also penned the stage version, the piece uses actual interviews as the basis for the lyrics. (Blythe conducted them herself.) Lines like "Everyone is very, very nervous, um, and very unsure" begin as fragments of dialogue and soon build and blossom into melodies, albeit often of the unsmiling and evenly delivered kind. The songs come at the audience with what might be called stylized naturalism. When you combine banal words with a heightened art form, the effect is unsettling.
"It's a challenge to explain because there's not really anything like it," Norris, a theater veteran who also directed the stage production, told The Times by phone from England. "It's a real form-breaker."
That made marketing the project (among other things) a little tough. "When we first put it out there, there was a certain amount of consternation. People said 'you can't make a musical about the murder of five prostitutes.'" Norris said with a laugh. "I do see their point."
But the piece worked, with the film earning strong reviews on both sides of the pond (my colleague Justin Chang was very enamored).
Part of the reason is the actors' commitment to the enterprise. The ensemble -- it includes Tom Hardy and the British actress Olivia Colman (from U.K. mainstays like "Broadchurch" and "Peep Show") -- sings the songs at a kind of grounded human register; there is, notably, no camp. "London Road" feels like a persuasive drama that just happens to include some (very bizarre) song lyrics.
"To do interviews in the form of the musical is quite weird," Colman, who plays the neighborhood-watch leader, said. "And you really couldn't put much of your own stamp because you're playing other people's speech patterns." That there are numerous repetitions -- the same line is often sung over and over by recombinant groups of actors -- didn't help matters.
The effect, though, is so unusual that it can have a mesmerizing effect on the viewer. The subtle themes help too. If "La La" resonates because it's a novel take on recognizable ideas (love and art), "London" operates on similarly universal grounds. After all, parallels decidedly exist between a culture of fear percolating in an English town a decade ago and the reactions to terrorism and other threats in the U.S. and Europe now.
"I think it's unfortunately incredibly resonant at a moment that we have what might you call an island mentality," Norris said. "I don't mean to sit in judgment -- we can say Trump or Brexit but in the end people are responding out of fear and complete loss of faith in leadership. 'London Road' is a parable for that."
Colman underscored that it's a bit easier to process lessons when the ostensible subject is musical serial killers, so long as the reactions contain a kind of familiarity. "It's exactly," the actress said, "what all communities would feel."
Colman said she hoped that people came to view the form anew and realize the ways that the fantasy world of the musical could also satisfy our desire for realism.
"A lot of people have made their decisions about how they feel about musicals," she said. "I hope people realize there are different ways to put it together."
Indeed, audiences are seeing that take numerous paths -- via "Hamilton" and its merging of the musical with serious history, or " La La," which is far more interested in emotional and psychological credibility than the average song-and-dance piece. "London Road" serves as a further reminder that there continues to be life to the musical -- and far from a single way to put one on.