The optimism and magic of ‘La La Land’ could propel it to a place among the top musical films of all time.
La La Land, a sunny romantic musical film starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is a pastiche of the great Hollywood musicals of yesteryear. La La Land combines modernity with nostalgia that drips from the screen. The film received a fair amount of buzz during the festival circuit. From Venice to Toronto, critics waxed lyrical about director Damien Chazelle’s take on the classic musical film.
What’s the appeal of the musical film genre?
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The musical film is, at its core, pure romantic art. It presents the viewer a certain alternate view of how colorful life can — not should — be. The origins of the genre can be traced to the transition from silent film to talkies. The official launch of the genre was Warner Bros’ release of The Jazz Singer (1927), which featured seven songs and a few lines of screen dialogue. Other studios soon followed suit and released their own musicals. This led to the golden age of the Hollywood musical in the 1930s and ’40s — from 42nd Street (1933) to the box office giant The Wizard of Oz (1939), which grossed $22.3 million.
The 1940s proved to be a successful time for the genre. In 1945 six out of 10 box office hits were musicals. Audiences wanted to be transported from a warring world to a fantasy reality, and musicals were the perfect escape. The musical film fell out of favor in the 1950s, but 10 years later four Broadway adaptions won Academy Awards (My Fair Lady, Funny Girl, Sweet Charity, Cabaret). Still the genre had to compete with television shows and the growing appeal of darker and more realistic films, such as Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate (1967).
The musical film later found success only with animated characters. Disney musicals became quite popular in the ’80s, often featuring music by acclaimed Broadway writers, such as Alan Menken.
In 2002 Chicago became the first musical film to win an Oscar for Best Picture since Oliver! in 1968. Despite its success, other modern musical films such as Rent, Nine, Glitter, Burlesque, Rock of Ages and Sparkle failed at the box office. Yet in 2012 the genre found a glimmer of its former glory with the smash hit Les Misérables.
The appeal of the musical film has fluctuated over the years. The foundation of the genre still has the stage frame of entertainment: resilience. Life’s adversity can bring you down, but it’s ultimately up to you to get back on your feet — think Sound of Music’s “Climb Every Mountain.” The timeless message of musical films combined with actors’ believable performances make the genre great.
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La La Land tells the recognizable story of following dreams in the big city. The film centers around a young couple desperately trying to achieve their goals in Los Angeles. The relationship between Mia (Emma Stone), a young struggling actor, and her jazz pianist boyfriend Seb (Ryan Gosling), becomes strained when his career begins to take off.
Director Chazelle certainly followed the optimistic hypothesis of the genre in La La Land. He states, “There’s something to be said for having even unrealistic dreams. Even if the dreams don’t come true, that to me is what’s beautiful about Los Angeles.” With La La Land, it seems Chazelle found the right energetic combination of drama, romance and music — the undeniable magic that glues the musical film together.
Looking for a film to satisfy your need for drama, music and dance while you wait for La La Land to release December 9? Here are five films every fan of musicals must watch:
5. Grease (1978)
A skinny John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John are entangled in a nostalgic American high school romance set in the 1950s with faux pop songs. The Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs musical leans on the cult status of greasers: beehives, teen pregnancy, smoking, rock ’n’ roll and juvenile delinquency, all beneath that glossy layer of Randal Kleiser’s family-friendly film. Travolta is at his best when he shows off his dance moves and has electric chemistry with Newton-John. Whether it’s “Grease Lightning” or “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” Grease offers several catchy songs etched in our pop culture lexicon. It won two People’s Choice Awards in 1979: one for overall motion picture and one for musical motion picture.
4. Singin’ in The Rain (1952)
Who didn’t practice their sweeping dance moves in the pouring rain after seeing the classic Singin’ in the Rain? The title song is one of the most famous musical sequences. Codirector and star Gene Kelly picked the signature song, which was originally featured in the musical The Hollywood Revue of 1929.
Singin’ in the Rain fully leans on the charming clean-cut energy of its leading quartet: the charming BFFs Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor (who won a Golden Globe for best actor for this role), Debbie Reynolds as Kelly’s girlfriend and Jean Hagen who doesn’t have a trained singing voice but steals all the scenes she’s in. This is the ultimate American musical classic.
3. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Wizard of Oz, one of the most cherished musicals in cinematic history, won two Academy Awards, one for original song and one for original score. Those sparkly ruby slippers are among Hollywood’s most famous film memorabilia. The teenaged Judy Garland is a mesmerizing Dorothy Gale. The Wizard of Oz presents a warm fantasy of family and home. Whether it’s “Over the Rainbow” or the magic spell “There’s no place like home,” The Wizard of Oz has enchanted us all.
2. Cabaret (1972)
The Broadway legend Bob Fosse is responsible for the mesmerizing dance style in the musical film Cabaret, which won eight Academy Awards and three Golden Globes. Liza Minnelli won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for best actress in this career-defining role as the nightclub singer Sally Bowles. Bowles is a damaged, sexy free spirit. She’s vulnerable but still a cynic. From the opening song “Wilkommen” to “Mein Herr,” Minnelli knows how to belt the dramatic show tunes.
1. Moulin Rouge (2001)
The work of the Australian director Baz Luhrmann is an acquired taste. With his romantic musical film Moulin Rouge, which won two Academy Awards and three Golden Globes, he pays tribute to the theatrical grandeur of the 1950s with plenty of artificial lighting, makeup and cancan. Moulin Rouge is a pseudo-pastiche musical film. The bombastic display is carried by the extravagant set pieces and chemistry between Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. Despite not having the strongest voices, they’re convincing in their doomed love story.
Want more? Definitely add these award-winning musicals to your list: Dreamgirls (2006), Chicago (2002), West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Fame (1980), An American in Paris (1951), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and The Wiz (1978).
Which musicals would you add to the list?