Today marks 20 years since the first episode of the iconic Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired, a momentous occasion in television and pop culture in general. Buffy was irrefutably one of the most groundbreaking TV shows ever to have graced the screens of the world. I started today by singing and then listening to the incredible soundtrack of the famous musical episode of the sixth season, Once More, with Feeling (I did watch the first episode, The Harvest, last night – and may have to watch much more tonight regardless of how early I have to get up for work tomorrow. All nighter?). This amazing episode aired almost 16 years ago, on my brother’s 10th birthday (fun-fact!). I was only 2 years old when the first episode came out, and yet for as long as my life as I can remember caring about television, I have cited the show as my favourite of all time.
Once More, with Feeling is one of the examples of where the show went above and beyond, diverging from the traditional format or feel of other episodes, yet maintaining the essence of the show, and indeed even maintaining the ‘monster-of-the-week’ plot structure. The other great example of this of course being Hush, but if I start talking about that I’ll likely never stop, which isn’t quite ironic but it makes me smile, so, whatever. I’ve cited Once More, with Feeling as one of my favourite musicals many times – something often met with criticism and suggestions I’m biased, or just haven’t seen enough musicals. My brother ought to be able to attest that in our household, we saw many musicals, my mother and father being the wonderful and ridiculous people they are (ranging from growing up on the classics like On the Town and Singin’ In the Rain, to enduring the Bend it like Beckham musical for my mother’s birthday). Historically, my focus on Once More… has been on what makes it such a remarkable achievement as a television episode. This morning as I listened to that implausibly excellent soundtrack (that I have recited drunkenly to friends and strangers far too many times) I began thinking about what makes a good musical.
It’s not that I didn’t like La La Land. Quite the opposite, I thoroughly enjoyed it when I saw it, and indulged in the soundtrack for a short while over the following weeks. I appreciated the nostalgic atmosphere, the performances of Gosling and Stone, and the sincerity of the ending. Like virtually every other reasonable person on the planet, I was rooting for Moonlight at the Oscars, but this didn’t mean I didn’t like La La Land. I know it is not necessary to constantly compare different forms of entertainment, different pieces. But thinking this morning about what makes a good musical – not just in comparison to Once More, but other favourites of mine, most prominently West Side Story, made me realise a few things about it. I’ve got a theory, you see (sorry).
What Once More, with Feeling achieves as a musical is the depth, development and space it facilitates for its various characters and storylines. It could be seen as unfair to compare the character development of a TV episode to a film – after all, we are already more than familiar with all of these characters, rather than being thrust into their lives as we are in the cinema. Similarly, shows like West Side Story began as stage musicals, with a much longer running time than your typical Hollywood venture. Ultimately, however, it is not just that La La Land failed to develop characters enough; it is simply that the vast majority of characters in the film lacked any substantial character to begin with. They were meaningless. The ‘Parking Ticket Lady’ of Once More, with Feeling had more depth to her than John Legend’s character. Tara (Amber Benson), rarely a central focus of Buffy storylines, outshone most of her peers not just in her singing ability, but in the emotion and honesty of her character displayed in this episode. The lyrics of “Under your Spell” and it’s reprise with Giles’ (Anthony Stewart Head) superb “Standing” take us through a storm of emotion, range, and a purity in where they as people come from. “Start a Fire” from La La Land, was devoid of any substantial meaning; Legend essentially performs background music to give us further insight into the progression of Gosling’s character. The wide variety of songs that do not feature protagonists in musicals are a key component in creating that universe that the show takes place in, be it a chorus performance or a solo effort from a supporting character. What would West Side Story be without “I Feel Pretty” or “Somewhere”; how dull would Oliver! be without numbers like “I’d Do Anything” or “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”. A musical is another world that the audience can get swept up in. Perhaps the most notable effort akin to these in ‘La La Land’ was the opening performance, “Another Day of Sun”, which honestly was my least favourite part of the movie. It felt a desperate attempt to conjure this world, and for something to feel too over-the-top and in-your-face for a musical is really quite an achievement.
In comparison, this creating of a musical “world” is something Whedon does with staggering skill, be it the opening orchestral montage, or the frequent and intermittent bursts of chorus performances throughout the episode, never dominating, just letting us know “it’s not just us”. I have a great deal of respect for Justin Hurwitz – his work on Whiplash in particular more than warrants attention. However, the soundtrack of La La Land is ultimately unchallenging and really rather boring when it comes down to it. “City of Stars”, the Oscar-winner, is certainly a catchy tune, and is fairly easy to get lost in, as is “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, but neither are particularly provocative, and neither feel like they will stand the test of time. More than anything else, the soundtrack of La La Land tends to mould into one, which instead of creating some musical masterpiece akin to a concept album, it results in a rather timid and droll journey, difficult to listen to multiple times. Les Miserables could be accused of something similar (particularly as the music doesn’t ever stop for the duration), but even that had this remarkable energy that La La Land is frequently found to lack. Once More, with Feeling is an exhilarating journey with any listen. The cast and composers (Whedon himself, mostly, along with Christophe Beck) take us on a beautiful and wild adventure ranging across a multitude of musical styles, symbolising each character with unrivalled attention, delicacy and purpose. Be it Spike’s (James Marsters) thundering “Rest in Peace”; the comedic, broadway-esque duet between Xander and Anya (Nicholas Brendon and Emma Caulfield); the aforementioned poetic wonders of Giles and Tara, or any of our leading lady’s (Sarah Michelle Gellar) efforts; every song gives us a clear and potent sensation of each character’s respective joys, woes and inner-most thoughts. The lyricism is astoundingly good. The sincerity delicately and subtly placed underneath the playfulness that is rife in much of Whedon’s work, particularly in the Buffyverse and the great Firefly, is on full display in this episode.
La La Land is not a bad film – far from it. It is quite a triumph to make such an ambitious and grand homage to a largely bygone era of filmmaking. However, where Once More, with Feeling is a true epic of its type while maintaining all of those feats that make it a standout masterpiece in its own genre and its own right, La La Land ultimately fails. Whedon gives each character, no matter how small, depth, honesty and appreciation; the result is a fun, ensnaring, and touching illustration of real people, despite a wholly outrageous premise. It is remarkable that Whedon is able to give more life to the undead than a depiction of modern-day Hollywood. Such a truth is a testament to Whedon, a slight on Damien Chazelle, or (best-case scenario for La La Land) a cutting commentary on the falsities of Tinseltown. Once More, with Feeling is a masterpiece of television, playing a vital role in the development of the season as we hear revelations from numerous characters. Buffy revealing to her friends they plucked her out of heaven; Tara discovering Willow’s deceit; Xander and Anya first truly showing their fears over what could be. Such storylines shaped the rest of the series, but more than this, the episode stood out as a feat of superb writing and ambition in a television series. A further testament to the stand-alone power of the episode is its sole status as a widescreen Buffy episode; it truly is a cinematic experience. It demonstrated the remarkable range of the entire collection of the show, maintaining the wit and comedy of the show, while simultaneously illustrating its more serious aspects. Whether it be singing about Mustard, perfectly timed shots and cuts (I.e. “You make me com-“; the fire engine as the ensemble thunders “let it burn”, the latter being truly ‘Quintet’-esque a la West Side Story).
I’d take a sparkly umbrella over an Oscar any day.