'La La Land' and the history of the screen musical

13 Jan 2017 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

4 mins
La La Land
La La Land

Harking back to classical Hollywood whilst simultaneously updating the genre for the modern world, La La Land is a lavish, romantic musical directed by Damian Chazelle, who previously made Whiplash. It is the simple story of two people pursuing their dreams in the intoxicating and ruthless city of Los Angeles. Both are struggling in their respective fields until a series of chance meetings causes them to fall in love - an event which might just bring about a change in their fortunes.

High-profile musicals are a rarity today, but the genre is a huge part of cinema history, and this legacy infuses every frame of La La Land

Broadly speaking, a musical film is one in which songs are performed by the characters and interwoven into the central narrative. Typically, the songs advance the story in some way (for example 'A Whole New World' in Aladdin or the 'Elephant Love Medley' in Moulin Rouge), but some films stage their musical numbers as elaborate stand-alone productions (as playfully sent-up by Channing Tatum in Hail, Caesar!). Musicals are perhaps most associated with indulgent escapism, usually operating in a heightened reality, where characters and audiences can revel in their enchanting set-pieces. La La Land combines the heightened reality of the central characters' song-and-dance routines with the complications of their everyday lives to develop their love story. 

The first Hollywood 'talkie', The Jazz Singer (1927), was actually a musical of sorts, and as audiences became used to the development of sound, musicals quickly dominated, perhaps because people were more used to hearing music on the wireless than engaging in a storyline dominated by spoken dialogue.

The films of Busby Berkeley, including 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, became iconic for their extraordinary group dance sequences. Their dazzling scale made full use of the camera, establishing the cinematic musical as distinct from its theatrical sibling. Musical film stars also emerged, and the genre became fixated on love stories. Most famously, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers starred in legendary titles like Top Hat and Swing Time, delighting audiences with their peerless dance skills and sizzling chemistry. Their style - particularly the use of dance duets - are an important influence on La La Land

The 1930s was a period of serious economic turmoil and political instability around the world. The movies - and musicals in particular - provided escapism, as people looked to Hollywood to showcase the world as they wished it could be, rather than how it really was. 

Throughout this era - known as the classical period - musicals remained popular. Stars like Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland emerged in films such as Meet Me In St. Louis and On The Town. The latter was filmed on the streets of New York, rather than a traditional studio, in much the same way as La La Land uses real locations from around Los Angeles. La La Land also draws on elements from Singin' In The Rain - arguably the most famous of all musicals - which also set itself within the world of Hollywood and drew on nostalgia. But where that film recalls the era of silent cinema, La La Land is partly drawing on the period that produced Singin' In The Rain itself.

Gradually, the musical's popularity declined, perhaps due to the rise of rock 'n' roll changing audiences' musical tastes. Most major hits - West Side Story, Oklahoma!The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady - were adapted from existing Broadway shows, although Mary Poppins and other Disney musicals were written specifically for the screen. During this period most musicals were moving away from traditional romantic stories and focussing on films for all the family. 

In France, the Nouvelle Vague emerged, and changed the language of film forever. Primarily associated with Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, one of its key practitioners was a musicals director: Jacques Demy. Demy's films, such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort drew on the aesthetics of Hollywood musicals, but were also informed by a love of jazz. They were characterised by their lavish, candy-coloured look; a poignant romantic tone; crossover between dreams and reality; and the presence of a recurring musical theme throughout. These films and stylistic choices influenced the look, feel and experience of La La Land more than any other. 

During the 1970s and 1980s, musicals became unfashionable, although the occasional classic title still emerged, such as Cabaret and Grease, while cult movies like LabyrinthThe Rocky Horror Picture Show and Bugsy Malone provided less conventional musicals. Throughout the 1990s, the musical mostly existed in animated form, with timeless stories like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King drawing on a tradition that began in the 1930s with the first animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

The 21st century brought various efforts to revive the now dormant genre. Baz Lurhmann reinterpreted classic pop songs for Moulin Rouge; the adaptation of Broadway shows continued with ChicagoDreamgirls and Les Misérables; and new trends emerged, such as jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia!. It remains a matter of opinion whether musical biopics like 8 Mile and Ray qualify as examples of the genre. One emerging young filmmaker who loves the musical form is John Carney, whose endearing low-budget Irish musical Once uses original compositions - a rarity today, but an approach also adopted by Chazelle and his regular composer Justin Hurwitz. 

All of this history feeds into La La Land and helps to explain enthusiasm for the film. La La Land is about many things: the exuberance of youth; pursuing your dreams; the city of Los Angeles; film history; the evolution of celebrity; and the conflict between life and art, and love and career. There is a fragility to the characters that we do not see in most musicals; the charm of the song-and-dance numbers comes through the stars' chemistry, rather than technical wizardry. Perhaps this suggests that audiences now expect more vulnerability from their film stars, no longer seeing them as untouchable gods in Tinseltown? 

More than anything, the film reminds us that in troubled and uncertain times, movies - and musicals in particular - can not only challenge us, but provide us with a valuable means of escapism, inspiring us to reach for the stars and take a chance on our own personal dreams, whatever they may be.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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