Why Moonlight Should've Been a Musical—and Not La La Land

Stephan Cho - March 1, 2017

Moonlight is, by almost any measure, a perfect film. It is a masterpiece of acting, writing, direction, cinematography, and score. As I mentioned in my review last November, Moonlight also manages to capture something timeless while bringing a voice to people whose stories are all too necessary to share in the current social and political climate. In any year, but especially this one, Moonlight deserves to win just about every Oscar it’s up for—up to and including Best Picture. But there’s one factor that I wish Moonlight had more in common with La La LandMoonlight’s biggest challenge in the Oscars, and a film that I found frankly underwhelming and almost aggressively mediocre when compared to Moonlight.

Moonlight should have been a musical. Keep the same plot and structure; just with some space for a few musical numbers.

I agree with the idea that the silences in Moonlight are part of what makes the film so compelling. There’s so much that is left unsaid in the film, and that seems pretty accurate for someone as internally focused as Chiron, and for someone who has been socialized in the way that Chiron has.

When I think about Moonlight, I keep coming back to that scene of “Black” and Kevin driving back in the car, having reunited after so many years at the diner. This is how that scene is presented in the screenplay by Barry Jenkins.

There’s so much baggage and heartbreak and beauty captured here in that one silence, and Trevante Rhodes and André Holland do a great deal of heavy lifting in expressing all of that with just their faces. I must admit there’s some chance of messing up Moonlight’s near-perfect alchemy by adding another element, but here is why I think turning Moonlight into a musical would make it even more affecting.

The best musicals manage to capture those moments when the feelings are so overwhelmingly powerful, and the ability of words to capture these feelings only so limited, that the only way to convey it is through song. There are many iconic movie musicals that fit into this category. Think about Dorothy dreaming of a fantastical world far away from the mundanity of Kansas life in The Wizard of Oz., or about the sheer joy that Gene Kelly can only express through song and dance in Singin’ in the Rain.. For a more recent example, you could turn to Jennifer Hudson’s star-making rendition of ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ as Effie White, at a crisis point in her professional and romantic life in Dreamgirls.. Of course, there’s also the model of Bollywood, where musical sequences often serve the function of revealing characters’ hopes, dreams, and desires.

For all the things that I found so satisfying about Moonlight, there were a few parts that I wish were made a bit more explicit. One of the biggest gaps in the film, in my opinion, concerns the development of Chiron’s feelings on masculine ideals at the start of his journey. We’re told by his mother, Paula, that Chiron is being picked on because of his seemingly effeminate behavior, and she appears to call Chiron a homophobic slur in a wordless sequence. The word “faggot” doesn’t come up until Chiron asks Juan and Teresa, who are arguably his surrogate parents in his early life, about what this means.

We don’t need to know exactly whether Paula said the word, nor do we need to know exactly from where Chiron picked up that hateful word. But in one of the few truly liberating experiences for Chiron at the start of the film, we get to see him in a moment of release: dancing unreservedly at a school dance studio, letting his body roam free in his naivety to the sort of masculine ideals that might punish this type of physicality.

As Chiron gets more emotionally hardened over his journey in the film, it becomes increasingly unlikely within the reality of Moonlight that someone like Chiron might allow himself that sort of release. However, since Chiron is such a repressed character, we are left to only guess at what kind of emotional turmoil is going on underneath his hard exterior. The most affecting moments are when we see small cracks in Chiron’s (or Black’s) shell of invulnerability, such as the scene where Chiron decides to reconnect with Kevin over the phone.

I will concede that it would take away from the impact of those moments if too much of the mystery behind Chiron’s internal life was taken away. But there’s something beautiful about the way fantasy and reality, internal life and external faces, emotional expression and repression collide in musicals. That final glance between Chiron and Kevin at the end of the film, as a result, becomes more than just a flash of intimacy and longing. It becomes the point where Chiron’s most closely guarded dreams catch up to his reality.

Moonlight is a deeply personal work, just as I would argue is the case of La La Land. Writer-director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play from which Moonlight is based, both grew up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami in which Moonlight is set. La La Land writer-director Damien Chazelle was an aspiring jazz musician, the likes of which I’ve overheard explaining Coltrane and Thelonious Monk to some poor lady at my local coffee shop. It could be argued that Ryan Gosling’s character in La La Land, Sebastian, might be a surrogate for Chazelle’s own romanticism and possibly bygone notions on what jazz and ‘the pictures’ should be. Chazelle, like Sebastian, has built an underdog narrative around La La Land that centers around the old-fashioned nature of a musical like his in the current film industry. In fact, Chazelle’s personal narrative has been the driving force behind La La Land’s awards campaign machine. Throughout this year’s awards circuit, Chazelle has spoken about the struggle to get La La Land made, just like the plucky young Hollywood dreamers in the film.

The ‘old Hollywood’ musical appeal has made La La Land a massive awards and box office success, but this approach makes for a less compelling film. Chazelle’s lack of distance from his nostalgia for these classic musicals, and particularly for the heroes and heroines of these musicals, makes it harder to root for his two lovers.

While I had issues with Whiplash, Chazelle’s last film, I was able to look past them because of Chazelle’s sharp perspective on the insular, hypercompetitive Manhattan jazz scene depicted in that film. Andrew Neiman, the monomaniacal jazz drummer at the center of that film, is unrelenting in his pursuit of a musical form and an elitist ‘classical music’ scene that is dying in the modern world. It’s clear Chazelle feels some sense of connection to the intense protagonist at the center of Whiplash, but Chazelle’s choice to present Whiplash as a thriller framed around an obsessive character of questionable mental health provides a strong, compelling critique on the viability of jazz in the modern world.

La La Land has many of the same issues as Whiplash, but it is more difficult to overlook them given the movie musical framework. One of the biggest gaps in both films is an acknowledgement of the distance between the origins of jazz as a distinctly African-American, rural Southern art form, and its current mode as an urban, predominantly white genre found primarily in elite classical music institutions and venues. Whiplash doesn’t directly address this divide; in fact, there are no significant characters of color, and the film rarely leaves the boundaries of the Upper West Side. But there is possibly a message to be drawn from what is missing in the film. The representation of jazz in Whiplash deals primarily with a pair of white, upper middle-class jazz musicians whose lives circle around the tony halls of Lincoln Center.

La La Land breaches this same divide, albeit with a more problematic take to be drawn from how it approaches the topic of jazz in the modern world. One of the most prevalent criticisms that has been charged against La La Land has dealt with the implications of Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian, who is white, explaining the preservation of jazz’s history to black musicians like John Legend’s Keith, who wants to expand the genre into a more modern, R&B and hip-hop inspired direction.

“Start a Fire,” the song that results from this fusion in the film, causes Sebastian to withdraw from Keith’s group in the pursuit of a career that better fits his understanding of how jazz should sound. To my ears, “Start a Fire” is the strongest song on the La La Land soundtrack, and is frankly the only song worth listening to independent of its context in the film. Grammy Award-winning singer John Legend also certainly has a stronger singing voice than Gosling or his partner Emma Stone, both of whom are, in the immortal words of American Idol judge Randy Jackson, “a little pitchy, dawg.” Considering how much more sophisticated and fun this song sounds when compared to Sebastian’s more staid jazz piano compositions, I was led to assume that Chazelle wanted audiences to understand that Sebastian was wrong to leave the group. However, in Chazelle’s vision, this decision comes to represent the fight of a plucky dreamer, trying to preserve the tradition of jazz against the looming tides of modernity.

As in Whiplash, Chazelle doesn’t really engage with this racial history in how he depicts jazz in La La Land. But unlike in Whiplash, given the formal and generic boundaries of the classic Hollywood musical, it is difficult to say that there is a deeper meaning to be drawn from the absence of this narrative in La La Land. The central figure in Whiplash has space to be unlikable, and to be the subject of commentary from an artist like Chazelle. Sebastian in La La Land, however, must fundamentally be likable in order for the audience to root for his happiness. Some more modern musicals have made an effort to undermine this requirement. The CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, for instance, has brilliantly used the musical form to tell the story of a protagonist who is often selfish, delusional, and impulsive Sebastian is not necessarily as unlikable as the protagonist of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but Chazelle’s perspective on him makes his potentially problematic ideas seem much more obnoxious.

If Chazelle wanted to bring the classic Hollywood musical into the modern world with La La Land, however, he should have either taken on a different story or possibly have made his story more attuned to the social expectations tied to modern storytelling. Based on current forecasts and the momentum of this Oscars race, La La Land will most likely beat Moonlight for Best Picture. However, Moonlight is the stronger film, and the one that warrants the underdog narrative that Chazelle has been working so aggressively to push for La La Land. Moonlight also deserves the right to draw from the rich history of the classic Hollywood musical much more than La La Land does. Plus, it certainly helps that Janelle Monáe can actually carry a tune, and that she knows how to write some pretty damn catchy pop songs.

Stephan Cho

Stephan Cho is a senior and the editor-in-chief of The Moviegoer. His interests include pop culture criticism, creative writing, and music production.