Garlanded with seven Golden Globes and 11 BAFTA nominations, generating some serious Oscar buzz and collecting rave reviews, La La Land is the hottest ticket in town. A joyful Hollywood-set picture and a glorious throwback to the golden age of musicals – it finally seems that it’s cool to sing and dance your heart out again. La La Land‘s nostalgia takes its inspiration from the very best musicals made during studio-era Hollywood’s purple patch – from the 1920s to ’60s. Below is a selection of those classic movie musicals whose spirit lives on in La La Land…
An American in Paris (1951)
This 1951 artistic triumph for MGM’s famous Arthur Freed musicals unit – and its star, Gene Kelly – is the style of musical most clearly evoked by La La Land. It’s in the vibrancy and striking yellow/blue lead of the colour palette, the soft focus of the cinematography, the stylised production design – and the importance of Paris. Its inspiration is present in the soundtrack and Stone and Gosling’s costumes, too: Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling) are dressed, respectively, in swishy ’50s prom dresses and snappy suits, and kicking back (and up and down) with jazz-infused music.
There’s also a satisfying symmetry in both films’ musical mixing of old and new: La La Land, in 2017, is retro with its licks of jazz, just as much as it is through being a musical. An American in Paris had its musical book provided by George Gershwin’s 1928 symphonic poem of the same name, plus other songs of his written in the 1920s. These were then updated for the audience of the time with touches of “jazz cat” stylings in performance and choreography. For pure similarity of ‘feel’ and tone, make sure to check out An American in Paris.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
The ultimate in movie musicals, Singin’ in the Rain was 1952’s offering from the Freed unit at MGM and most certainly the main cinematic source to which La La Land pays homage.
It’s the classic Hollywood picture about Hollywood, and the first one to masterfully show how well that could be done – particularly when the decision was made to set the musical in 1927, around the time the songs being used were originally written, and thereby opening up the rich opportunity to write on the revolution of talkies.
As both Mia and Sebastian are creatives in the industry (or trying to be) in La La Land‘s LA, so too are Don (Gene Kelly) and Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) in Singin’ in the Rain. The nature of the couples’ relationships are also comparable as it’s more annoyance at first sight than love – a far more entertaining state of affairs.
Mia gains an upper hand over Sebastian in their second encounter – after his rudeness the first time they meet, he winds up playing in an ’80s tribute band at a party she’s attending. Similarly, Kathy’s lecture on the “dumb show” of screen acting in Singin’ in the Rain to matinee idol Don bites her on the arse when she bursts out of a cake and performs a cheesy routine with a dance troupe at a Hollywood premiere party for Don’s new movie. It’s just human nature to relish a comeuppance and some nice verbal sparring. It’s also a nostalgic treat to see a couple wandering around a studio backlot again (this time Warner Bros.), just as Don and Kathy did at Singin’ in the Rain‘s ‘Monumental Pictures’ (real-life MGM).
Swing Time (1936)
… or any of the other eight films Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together in their classic run at RKO during the ’30s (plus a bonus in 1949 at MGM). To see Astaire and Rogers dance together is considered poetry in motion, and although Stone and Gosling cannot reach those dizzying heights themselves in La La Land it’s almost beside the point – their characters dance and sing for the pure joy of doing so, and not it in any ‘professional’ capacity (as is usually the case in Astaire and Rogers pictures).
Rogers and Astaire play professional/gifted dancers Penny and Lucky in Swing Time, going through the usual bickering and romantic complications that are just as much hallmarks of their films as their fabulous dance routines, before ending up happily together. The film boasts a particularly fine musical score, courtesy of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, who won an Oscar for the classic song ‘The Way You Look Tonight’.
‘A Fine Romance’ also provided Astaire and Rogers with a frustrated duet akin to the frostiness of relations between Mia and Sebastian when they first meet. Enjoy the thawing of Penny and Lucky’s relations during the joyous ‘Pick Yourself Up’ routine, too. Gosling and Stone also seem to be shaping up as quite the onscreen partnership, with La La Land their third outing together – here’s to more in the future!
The Band Wagon (1953)
Yet another musical from MGM and Arthur Freed (these guys seriously dominated the scene throughout the ’40s and ’50s), The Band Wagon also added the star wattage of one Fred Astaire in the lead role, this time paired with elegant ballerina Cyd Charisse. Another ‘behind the scenes’ picture, this one sees veteran star Tony (Astaire) starring in a comeback stageshow opposite Gaby (Charisse) and tussling with differing artistic visions.
Obviously the pair fall in love, and the beginnings of their romance are clear in the delightful ‘Dancing in the Dark’ routine set in Central Park. What’s also clear is how much fun Damien Chazelle had shaping his ‘A Lovely Night’ scene and routine in La La Land around its 1953 muse.
Oklahoma! was one of the wildly successful Rogers and Hammerstein musicals adapted for the screen in 1955 after premiering on Broadway back in 1943. As well as an enduring book (‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin” anyone?), the musical was famous for its groundbreaking and instantly recognisable choreography from Agnes de Mille.
One of Oklahoma!‘s most iconic scenes is the extended ‘Dream Ballet’, thought to be the first of its kind, where the plot essentially pauses for an all-dancing production number reflecting upon the themes of the storyline. This stylised segment allows for choreography and concepts beyond the normal bounds of realism, much like when Mia and Sebastian’s dance number takes them up into the skies (and stars) of the Griffith Observatory in La La Land.
This Dream Ballet technique is also utilised beautifully in Mia’s dream towards the end of the film, when she explores what could have been in an alternate universe (cue sniffles). There are also memorable dream dance sequences to be seen in Astaire and Rogers’ Carefree, and within the ‘Broadway Melody’ segment of Singin’ in the Rain, between Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse’s characters.
The Broadway Melody (1929)
The first all-talking movie musical, The Broadway Melody won the Best Picture Academy Award of 1929 and is really where it all began – and guess who was involved! Yes, it’s Arthur Freed, as lyricist for songs which would later reappear in Singin’ in the Rain. Watch it for a flavour of history – costumes, backdrops and even fonts in La La Land owe something to the ‘brand’ of the Roaring Twenties and its dark pizzazz. It’s also fascinating to see how the cinematography surrounding big production numbers like ‘Broadway Melody’ and ‘Wedding of the Painted Doll’ has been totally unshackled from its stage origins by the time we get to 2016 and La La Land‘s ‘Another Day of Sun’ opening routine. Although, to be fair, I’ve never seen anyone tap dance en pointe since…