Although the focus has been mostly on Damien Chazelle’s La La Land for its investment in reviving the musical – not exactly the Hollywood musical but, perhaps, the French musical of the Jacques Demy variety. Demy was influenced by the American musical, specifically, Vincent Minnelli. It’s interesting to look at The Umbrellas of Cherbourg side-by-side with La La Land because there is such a deliberate homage being paid. If you look at the endings of both films, you will see the similarity most strikingly. Both end on a question of fate and mild regret. They’re so different and yet one could not have existed without the other. La La Land also takes its cues from other musicals, like An American in Paris.
La La Land is part Demy, for sure. Its mood and melancholy come right from that. But it also has strands of the musicals of the 30s and 40s, particularly in the dance numbers with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Stone’s dancing reminds me of Rita Hayworth more than Ginger Rogers and Gosling is not Astaire – but that kind of childlike energy is apparent in both.
But La La Land actually isn’t the only musical being offered up. If you look at animated film, for instance, many of them are musicals, from Moana to Sing to Trolls. In animated features, the musical is more alive than ever. But even beyond those two movies, there are wonderful send ups of eras gone by.
In the Coens’ Hail, Caesar!, several big studio movie tropes are satirized and celebrated, and among them, the Esther Williams underwater mermaid dance numbers, which were such a bizarre thing. They took a swimming athlete who was all the rage and built these bizarre musicals around her. Of course, the Scarlett Johansson part of Hail, Caesar! could have been its own whole movie. She’s so brilliant in the short time she’s on screen and we’re reminded again how little they use her in comedic roles.
With La La Land on track to make $100 million and really seeming to become a cultural phenomenon, it’s highly likely that there will be more musicals brought before audiences – particularly as life becomes increasingly depressing under Trump. I do hope that we are in for a new new new NEW wave of original, live-action musicals. It seems like the original ones tend to do better than the ones made from Broadway shows. Between Lin-Manuel Miranda’s success and Damien Chazelle’s, audiences are expressing their excitement for these and their desire for more.
And of course, one of the film’s stand outs is the Channing Tatum sailor dance number, which pays homage to Gene Kelly in On the Town, among other Hollywood musicals.
The third type of musical in film this year is Sing Street, which isn’t particularly a musical but is like so many pop song movies of the 1980s where someone was always getting up on stage and performing. Here, specifically, Back to the Future’s band moment with Michael J. Fox is referenced, but of course, here were so many “let’s start a band” movies back then.
Hopefully the success of La La Land will revive the musical as a groundbreaking form potentially. There is so much more freedom with production design and costumes when a filmmaker is able to be freed from the convention of hard reality.