The Struggling Artist in Film Musicals

Summit Entertainment/ Radius-TWC

I began writing this piece in the wake of the La La Land hype that was sweeping the world. For the record, I did enjoy it though I see its faults, but this piece isn’t about that so don’t click away quite so fast. Instead, I thought I’d talk about struggling artists being the central character(s) in film musicals.

Musicals featuring struggling artists are prominent. It may be the underlying wish for a character, such as Roxie’s dream to be a Vaudeville star in Chicago (2001), epitomised by Rob Marshall’s choice to shoot the musical numbers in a dreamlike fashion, or Tracy Turnbald (Hairspray, 2007) wanting to be a dancer on the ‘Corny Collins Show’. The artist character may already acknowledge that this is their career and they are struggling with it, such as Mark and his friends in RENT (2005 film adaptation). Or, they may be a couple, a pair of struggling artists, such as the protagonists in The Last Five Years (2014) and La La Land (2016), which will be the focus of my discussion.

What fascinates me about both of these films is that the two main themes running parallel throughout are the romantic relationship itself, and whether the artist(s) is achieving success, or their ‘dream’. In my opinion, the relationship seems to be the theme which is focused upon more, but because I am a self-absorbed, unaffectionate arts student I tend to like looking at the career aspect of the characters.

emma stong
Emma Stone as actress/barista Mia in ‘La La Land’
Credit: Summit Entertainment

La La Land follows two LA inhabitants, Mia and Sebastian, with big dreams. Mia (Emma Stone) is a barista working tirelessly to fund her lifestyle auditioning for films alongside women who look like her “but prettier” for casting directors who care more about their sandwich choice. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist, obsessed with jazz, playing restaurant set-lists whilst dreaming of the day he opens his own jazz bar. The film tells their relationship between themselves and their dreams through time, using clear markers to divide the seasons they spend together.

The Last Five Years is a 2001 musical by Jason Robert Brown which was adapted into a 2014 film starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. Similar to Mia, Cathy (Kendrick), is also a struggling actress – this time in New York – working temp jobs and bars whilst auditioning and “standing in line with two hundred girls who are younger and thinner than me”. Her partner, Jamie (Jordan), is a writer who finds great success. The musical film is a look inside the characters’ heads and the way their relationship develops through its five years.

Are you starting to see the similarities yet?

Though both of the plots cover similar territory, they do so in different ways, ensuring the outcomes and things to take away are very different.
La La Land tells its story through spectacle and colour, with big sweeping one-take shots which show off the sunny landscapes of LA. Everything from its camera shots, dance moves, and costuming hints at previous musical films, with the film being an ode to the ‘Golden era of Hollywood Musicals’ of the 1940s. It’s even filmed in CinemaScope to recreate that wide-screen, vintage, aesthetic.

The Last Five Years, however, is certainly not an ode to its musical predecessors, being filmed in a documentary style which creates an intimate relationship between the audience and Jamie and Cathy, giving us a real peek into their life. The muted colours help create the homemade aesthetic, and suggests the realism of living in New York City: blocky, stuffy, and sometimes a bit too much. In comparison, La La Land certainly feels like a show being put on for us, especially with the paper silhouettes in the epilogue. Its bright colours and dreamy quality reeks of Los Angeles optimism, and a longing for dreams which were made when watching old Hollywood films.

cccc Jamie (Jordan) and Cathy (Kendrick) in ‘The Last Five Years’
Credit: Radius TW-C

The Last Five Years certainly does not borrow from past musicals in its form either. Experimentally, it tells the story of the couple’s relationship through solo songs, with them only coming together on stage during their wedding (‘The Next Ten Minutes’). Further, while Jamie’s songs are in chronological order, Cathy’s are backwards, meaning the first thing we see in the show is the end of the relationship, before quickly jumping to their early days. The music uses recurring motifs and melodies which are twisted depending on the situation, depicting musically how a relationship can be: something may once seem romantic, but eventually it becomes twisted, anxious, annoyed. Each song is carefully crafted for the stage and to be sung with big voices, which both Kendrick and Jordan have, and are very specific to the show. La La Land’s score by Pasek and Paul (whose previous work includes musicals Dogfight and Dear Evan Hansen), however, can easily be taken out of context and played on their own. Surprisingly, there aren’t that many musical numbers in La La Land  for a musical, especially compared to the entirely sung-through TL5Y.

What I find interesting about both of the relationships in these films are that both the women are actresses. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, maybe it’s something more. Is it because female actors are seen as eye candy, and writing about their struggles of not being as pretty or thin as the other actresses they’re up against is easy? Perhaps there’s a suggestion that actresses don’t create, but read other people’s words for them, unlike their partners (writer/musician), who are seen as always actively creating something. I must, fairly, debunk this point slightly, as Mia does write and create her own one-woman show, which is the vehicle to her ‘success’. It is undeniable, though, that both the females are seen as the ones who appear to struggle with their artistic career. Cathy and Mia are given ‘audition sequences’ to show their trials of trying to become successful actresses, whilst their partners seem to be catapulted into stardom. By his second song Jamie has a book deal and becomes an NY Times best-selling author, and Sebastian tours in Keith’s band to rapturous applause, many a fan, and a gruelling schedule.


Dreaming of the Golden Age of Musicals
Credit: Summit Entertainment

It is this inequality in success, and the struggle in watching your partner succeed whilst you are stuck in yet another audition with casting directors who won’t listen to you, which creates the cracks in each film’s relationship. Young artists may attract one another, but this may not always be a good thing due to the indefinite future of their career, the odd hours of work, and constant changing of the field. Cathy shouts at Jamie, telling him “You do not have to go to another party, with the same twenty jerks you already know”, asking him to stay with her on her birthday (‘See I’m Smiling’), and Mia and Sebastian have a conversation-turned argument over dinner about his consistent touring and being away. Time and commitment is certainly of the essence in both productions, with both women perhaps dreaming of idyllic bliss – Mia through the film’s cinematography and her love of old Hollywood, and Cathy through her timeline moving backwards through time, to the happiest parts of her relationship with Jamie. It’s also always the men who pick them up. Jamie encourages Cathy through ‘The Story of Schmuel’ and Sebastian presses Mia to write her play, which she does.

I suppose the question that is begged when you put a romantic relationship and a struggle to be a successful artist together in one film/musical, is whether the couples you watch care more about each other, or about their careers. Through both the cinematography, music, and viewpoint we see each production, though different senses of this are evoked.
Because La La Land ends (spoiler!) with Mia and Sebastian no longer together, but still happy in their respective lives and having got what they wanted – Mia a famous actress and Sebastian owning his own jazz club – that everything feels alright. They both got what they wanted, their big shining LA dreams which are focused on much more than their romantic ones. Of course you feel wistful, wishing they were still together, but on the whole you feel sort of proud of the pair, seeing how far they’ve come: from coffee shop to cinema screen.

For Jamie and Cathy, however, it’s a different story. The show ends heartbreakingly, with Jamie singing goodbye to Cathy forever, whilst Cathy is singing goodbye ‘until tomorrow’, stuck five years previously in the timeline. We don’t get an epilogue like in La La Land. We don’t know what happens next. Does Jamie write more successful books? Does Cathy finally leave summer stock in Ohio and become a big Broadway star? We never find out. Instead, due to the way the songs are so psychologically focused on the pair, we begin to ponder what went wrong in the relationship as opposed to the career – was Cathy’s jealousy the start of it? Was it inevitable for (spoiler!) Jamie to sleep with someone else?

Perhaps the way these two film musicals end says a lot about location, too. Is Los Angeles the place for sunshine dreams and sparkling success for everyone, whilst New York is the muted brown city for cynical realists? Or maybe the time difference in each musical’s creation suggests a lot, too.

What do you think? Let me know below!

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