After a clean sweep at this month's Golden Globes, Sophie Atkinson breaks down the answer to La La Land's success and why it's the perfect time for Hollywood musicals to make a comeback. Warning: minor spoilers follow.
When the going get tough, the tough get going… to musical cinema. From the form’s conception to its commercial peak (late 1920s-early ‘50s) planet Earth experienced the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and a World War. In the last year of World War II, six out of the ten box-office hits that year were musicals. So after the garbage fire of a year that was 2016, was the world simply hungering for a musical movie? Was La La Land’s clean sweep at the Golden Globes, where the film broke records with its seven category win, written in the stars, or at the very least in the sociological climate?
Well, yes and no. While Tom Hanks was supposed to be promoting his own movie, Sully at the Telluride Film Festival, he segued into a paean as to why La La Land’s success is both great and unexpected. “When you see something that is brand new, that you can’t imagine, and you think, ‘Well, thank God this landed,’ because I think a movie like La La Land would be anathema to studios,” Hanks explained. “Number one, it is a musical and no one knows the songs.”
Hanks has a point. While there’s a lack of statistics about the audiences for musical movies, we do know, thanks to a 2015-2016 survey, that the age of the average Broadway theatregoer is “almost 44 years old”. This isn’t entirely unexpected, when you think of one of the entertainment mediums that dominates for the same, oft-broke sector of young people that might not have money for tickets to the theater: television, with a 2015 study performed in the US by Deloitte recording 36% of those aged 19-25 saying they indulge in a binge-watching session on a weekly basis. And arguably many of these shows have established a new form of storytelling that stands in opposition to much of established musical narratives, because it's fair to say our era isn’t just good at television, but complicated television.
Shows like Mad Men, Westworld, Mr. Robot and Breaking Bad all share a protagonist who is deliciously opaque. Millennnials are accustomed to putting the time in, watching 20 episodes or so, to be able to read these unreliable narrators. In contrast, most musicals boast characters who sing their feelings and back stories in lieu of monologues or montage scenes. In short, television attempts to be a form of realism, while many classical musicals take joy in their artificiality as a form of escapism. It’s hard to imagine a classic musical writer caring whether or not you find their film realistic — it’s not meant to be.
Which makes it tricky for a new musical movie. If you wanted to reach out to a younger audience who wouldn’t be caught dead watching a musical, usually, you’d need to give your musical a more nuanced relationship to reality, bringing it a little closer to these deliberately-complicated works of the small screen. Whereas if you want to reach your average Broadway audience, you’d want to pay homage to the musical greats of the past. Arguably La La Land ticks off both boxes.
The film opens on a traffic jam, people stuck in their cars in the baking heat of California. But then, one by one, without warning, the drivers exit their cars, revealing color-blocked outfits that complement each other, dance and shimmy, climb on top of their cars to sashay a little better.
It’s proudly, exaggeratedly ridiculous in refusing to conform to the rules of realism, and maybe that’s why it’s guaranteed to trigger a smile — if you’re not swept away by the feel-good vibes, you’re seduced by the open absurdity. Once the dance sequence is over, reality abruptly resumes — actor Mia (Emma Stone) irritates jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who’s stuck in the car behind her when she drills her lines for an audition and fully absorbed, forgets to keep track of the car in front of her, which is accelerating away. Sebastian aggressively overtakes her, beeping all the while, triggering Mia to flip the bird at him. It’s basically the opposite of a meet-cute.
And this is La La Land’s delight — it’s constantly drawing attention to its own duality as a fantasy that’s also about the reality of trying to create fantasy. After all, it’s no coincidence that its leads are both aspiring stars trying to make it in Hollywood, meaning that it simultaneously documents the pressures and little disappointments of real life and the entertainment industry and acts as an antidote to them. Even the casting itself messes with the audience; putting two of the most famous faces in Hollywood to play desperate, aspiring wannabe-stars means viewers can never quite forget this is make-believe.
And all the while, director Damien Chazelle keeps us tuned in to the constant reality/fantasy switcheroo via the film’s audio. Because while the film’s soundtrack is dominated by major chord segues into dreamland, Chazelle’s running joke is using a well-known sound from our daily lives to cut through the pastel candyfloss of the visuals and bring us back to reality.
After tapdancing together against a sunset backdrop, just as Mia and Sebastian lean in for their first kiss, they’re interrupted by the tinny refrain of the default iPhone ringtone that everyone — admittedly, mostly people who take loud calls on public transport — seem to have their phones set to. It breaks the spell: flustered, Mia says a curt goodbye before heading off to her car. Similarly, during an intense emotional discussion under some Lynchian off-green lighting, the surreal moment is defused by the acrid beep-beep-beep of a smoke alarm. This seems to mirror the way technology intrudes on happy moments all the time: the amazing night out that’s soured when a Guardian News notification pops up on your phone and tells you that your favorite musician has passed away, or that heart-to-heart that’s cut short when a family member on the other side of the world tries to Facetime.
The dazzling, drawn-out finale recalls Chazelle’s last directorial outing, Whiplash, in playing with the audience and keeping them guessing until the very last second. Only this time round, Chazelle achieves this effect by switching between reality and fantasy versions of how everything plays out at a dizzying speed. Whether or not you agree the film’s conceit works up until this point (and I think it does), arguably the last scene will convert non-believers.
But the film doesn’t just update the form, it pays tribute to all the great musical movies that went before it. Obviously, as Aisha Harris at Slate notes, there’s the fact that the film was shot in Cinemascope. This is important: the form was a “groundbreaking new widescreen process that revolutionized filmmaking in the 1950s” which explains why aesthetically the film manages to look like a classic movie-musical even when it’s just panning across a modern-day traffic jam. Harris also pinpoints the moments the film references the MGM classic Singin’ In The Rain, with Gosling swinging around the lamp post during “A Lovely Night”, recalling Gene Kelly doing the same in the film’s ending while paying tribute to the Broadway Melody ballet from the 1952 film with its “neon signs, the appearance of the casting director from Mia’s “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” and the red-and-yellow color scheme.”
Meanwhile, Monica Castillo at the New York Times notes another parallel with another Gene Kelly musical, An American In Paris, with the fantasy sequence at the film’s end – where the hand-drawn backdrops visually mirror “the long ballet sequence” in the older movie. Castillo also notes how the primary colors worn by characters in La La Land recall the “poppy musicals of the French director Jacques Demy.” Then there’s the little matter of the swimming pool party, which recalls Busby Berkley’s “swimming pool musicals.” Basically, the movie’s a treasure-trove of classic movie-musical moments for those in the know.
Still — while La La Land manages to synthesize the old with the new in a way that appeals to both musical fanatics and musical haters alike, the film isn’t without its problems. The characterization of Mia and Sebastian lacks depth at points; the fact that Sebastian, a white man, is positioned as jazz’s savior while the film’s primary black character, Keith (John Legend) is depicted as cheapening the form is profoundly uncomfortable and, of course, purely from a musical perspective, not every song is going to reach the dizzy heights of the average classic MGM number. But this is the week when Trump enters the White House and the year that Britain will commit to a “hard Brexit.” The horror of 2016 wasn’t that it was just a really bad year, but that it sowed the seeds for many years of prejudice, economic instability and hatred to come. In such gloomy times, we need escapism and, at least from where this writer’s standing, musicals no longer sound too twee to bear.
And perhaps that’s why 2017 has an unusually robust list of non-animated musical-movies coming up. For fans of Emma Watson, we’ve got her feminist-friendly live-action reworking of Beauty and The Beast. The Greatest Showman, which stars Hugh Jackman as the real-life circus impresario P.T. Barnum, has been in development since 2009 and drops in December. Given that La La Land also spent a number of years in development, this could suggest a film on a similarly opulent scale and just like La La Land, it’s an original musical written for the silver screen. Not so much a musical movie as a movie-with-a-lot-of-music, Terrence Malick’s Song To Song sounds like another go-to pick for La La Land fans, starring Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara as two struggling songwriters in a relationship with each other set against the Austin, Texas music scene. Patti Smith, Lykke Li, The Black Lips, Iggy Pop, Florence and the Machine, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers will all appear, presumably to provide musical support. Meanwhile, Baby Driver (from Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright) provides another looser take on a musical movie, centered around a getaway driver who suffers from tinnitus and as such, with the movie’s action being choreographed to the music he listens to, to drown out the ringing in his ears.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. While all of the above sound great, it’s hard to imagine they can compete with the sheer effortlessness of Damien Chazelle’s movie. So if you haven’t checked out La La Land yet and you’re feeling apocalyptic about the crushing pressure of world events, take a trip to the cinema that will blow you away. Whether you’re in it for the sun-baked lighting that fast-forwards you straight to summer, the joy of watching Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone dance a waltz so deft they take flight or for Chazelle’s directorial smarts, it’ll be the musical you need to start 2017 off right.
For more of what's coming up in 2017, check out these 12 TV shows premiering this year.