La La Land and the Case for Dubbing

Awards contender La La Land makes a big impression. Director Damien Chazelle and stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone go for broke, giving audiences an old-school musical in new-school duds. On the way out of a recent screening, everybody seemed to be asking two questions above all.

1) Wasn’t that movie great?!
2) Why didn’t they hire actors who can actually sing?

 Which, truthfully, is probably unfair. The hard truth of being a professional entertainer is that you have to specialize to some degree. Want to excel at music? Train to be a musician. Excel at acting? Train to be an actor. This is essentially the 10,000 hour rule made famous by Malcolm Gladwell. Someone like Ryan Gosling probably gained his incredible acting skills partially at the expense of learning to sing like a rock star.For the sake of argument, let’s ignore the rule-proving exceptions. There’s only one Donald Glover.

And let us also bracket stage actors from the discussion. Certainly, Broadway is crawling with multi-talented performers; however, camera acting and stage acting are radically different disciplines. Heck, Ryan Gosling himself only really hit his stride in 2011 or so. Casting for a movie is also a more sensitive process in some ways than casting for a play, including the whole “economic star power” thing, which isn’t sexy to talk about but obviously is a thing that matters.

The point is that Ryan Gosling — even with his somewhat mediocre singing ability — is absolutely the right man to play this part in this movie. So the question is this: How do we best put him in a musical?

One of the ways musical filmmakers used to get around the insane demand that entertainers be good at literally everything is by letting a trained singer provide the vocals during the songs. That way, you could take full advantage of the charisma and acting chops of your iconic movie star, and still deliver a truly superb musical number. This used to be fairly common practice, in fact, until a certain point when we apparently decided to just… stop doing it.

Admittedly, it’s possible that dubbing in a singing voice — particularly if it’s done poorly — could wind up distracting viewers. Especially people who keep up with behind-the-scenes sorts of reports and would know going in that it took two people to get a particular song on-screen. On the other hand, this entire column was kicked off because the actual singing voices of the actors in question proved distracting to the movie. And it bears mention that we live in an Age of Wonders and the technology used to work with dialogue replacement and things of that nature is better than ever.

Of course, in the Age of Wonders, filmmakers can also let a sound engineer take the original track and muscle it into shape. Apparently this is what they’ve done with Emma Watson’s voice in the upcoming live-action Beauty and the Beast adaptation. Personal levels of irritation at the heavily processed sound may vary by the viewer, and can be equally distracting to anything else mentioned so far. At the least, doing it this way certainly seems different from simply letting the actress sing to the best of her ability.

And aren’t the movies an art form of illusions anyway? We have stunt doubles, hand doubles, digital doubles, different actors to play characters at different ages. It’s pretty much the only medium that gets better with more collaboration. So why not — when it makes sense to — let the actors act, and the singers sing?

-David Rice, Motion Graphics and FX editor

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