While I generally enjoyed La La Land for the most, even at my most optimistic, I could not get over the weak justifications for the lead performers’ singing. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are not great singers. They’re barely good singers and would mostly warrant the label of ‘passable’. Yet this, as well as their lacklustre dance moves, were excused with a wave of the hand by critics and the director alike because, apparently, it was more about the authenticity of the moment. See, they’re real people and that means they don’t sing like trained musicians. It’s more inspiring to see someone try, so they say, and that seemed to be a driving force of getting Emma Stone her Oscar win. She did try.
She’s not unique in that regard. Tom Hooper and company famously made a pitchy song and dance about the ‘authenticity’ of the big-screen adaptation of Les Miserables. In order to capture the fire of the story and its gloomy grittiness, the actors would sing live. So much hype surrounded this novelty (not that it was ever a unique occurrence, even in film) that it handily acted as an excuse for bad singing and acting alike. Russell Crowe gets the lion’s share of criticism for his honk of a voice but he’s not alone in that film: Eddie Redmayne looks agonized as he tries to get through his songs, Amanda Seyfried lacks the range for her part, and even Tony Award winner Hugh Jackman is ill-served by this process. It also proved immensely difficult for the film’s sound crew, who had to essentially rewrite the rules for how sound design and mixing is created for cinema. All in the service of singing that doesn’t do the music justice.
It’s time we just admit the truth: Good acting in musicals doesn’t make up for bad singing, so we should bite the bullet and bring back dubbing.
Dubbing actors with professional singers is as much as part of film history as sound itself. Singin’ in the Rain is a whole movie about that process. Name a major Golden Age musical and the chances are your favourite performance in it was dubbed by a ‘ghost-singer’. Marni Nixon dubbed everyone from Deborah Kerr in The King and I to Natalie Wood in West Side Story to Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (although Hepburn herself was reportedly very unhappy to have been replaced by Nixon). Back in Nixon’s day, dubbing was often kept secret from the actors themselves (Natalie Wood was unaware that her singing in West Side Story would be replaced) and she was frequently denied proper credit and the royalties she deserved. Sometimes, her work was miniscule, such as the time she was called in to dub Marilyn Monroe’s big number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but only the phrase, ‘These rocks don’t lose their shape.’ Yet mostly she worked in tandem with the stars she dubbed, collaborating to make the process seamless. Would it really be so bad if Into the Woods had been dubbed with musical actors with the appropriate skills to do Sondheim’s musical and lyrical dexterity justice?
The easier solution, of course, would simply be to hire actors with proven musical talent. Broadway and the West End are full of them, and some have made the jump from stage to screen. Imagine Belle as played by Cynthia Erivo or Jessie Mueller, both Tony Award winning musical stars whose voices are perfectly suited to the songs of Beauty and the Beast, certainly far more so than Emma Watson. Wouldn’t you kill to see Raul Esparza in a major musical, a rare opportunity to see him do what he does 8 shows a week in New York? Yet the calls of bankability reign supreme and we are told such actors have no cache outside of the Broadway community.
It seems questionable for certain musical casting decisions to be dictated by celebrity in an age where the A-List model is shakier than ever. Beauty and the Beast didn’t need Emma Watson’s star power to make it a hit and her thin, auto-tuned singing only weakens the movie itself. There’s no way audiences can’t tell that Watson is auto-tuned and there’s only so many times we can hear the claim that authenticity matters most in a movie with talking candlesticks and a rose-based system of magical moralizing. If the industry must put star power before pure ability then something’s got to give. All they have to do is be honest and credit accordingly. Some audiences feel uneasy with the notion of dubbing, as if it’s not real acting, but we don’t ask those playing doctors to perform actual surgery.
Film is about illusion. The whole purpose is to create something that may feel real but isn’t, we don’t expect supposed authenticity from high-fantasy but if the illusion works then that’s all we need. Producers and studios spend millions of dollars making sure every pixel of the CGI in the latest Marvel movie is impeccably constructed so that, for a brief moment, viewers will believe a man in an iron suit can fly. The best make-up artists in the world create achingly detailed prosthetics to turn men into aliens and create injuries that are stomach churning in their realness. Stunt men and women perform death-defying feats, often at great risk to their own lives, so that car chase will make your heart stop. We know film isn’t real. That’s why we love it so much. It seems ludicrous to not apply such logic to music. It certainly doesn’t help an already maligned genre like the musical to be seen as a dumping ground for mediocrity simply because it’s ‘authentic’.
So, Hollywood, my demand is simple: If you are so steadfast in your belief that big actors are needed to sell a movie musical, then do us all a favour and let the professionals do the hard work behind the scenes. Save us all the agony of pitchy auto-tune.
Header Image Source: Disney