Musicals are typically a genre of homage, a celebration of artifice that reinforces the make-believe nature of cinema. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – named the best musical ever by the American Film Institute – is about Hollywood’s transition from silent films to ‘talkies’ in the 1920s, with a romance between a swashbuckling silent film star (Gene Kelly) and an aspiring actress (Debbie Reynolds) thrown in.
Co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, it represents the pinnacle of 1950s musicals produced by MGM’s Freed Unit (named after producer Arthur Freed). It’s also a retro pastiche, epitomised by its Beautiful Girl montage, which salutes the Charleston, vaudeville, burlesque, ballroom dancing and floor shows in one swooning, seamless sequence.
The film’s title song, once heard, is never forgotten. In filming this technically demanding dance routine, the rain (water mixed with milk for visibility) gave Kelly a nasty fever, but what the audience sees is self-abandoning joy as he twirls around a lamp post and splashes in puddles.
The heyday of musicals might be over – or is it? La La Land has rekindled their appeal and lapped up awards. Shot on film in Cinemascope, with costumes and sets of obscenely gorgeous technicolour glory, it’s a joyous love song to the Hollywood dream factory. Director Damien Chazelle cites Singin’ in the Rain and the jellybean-coloured musicals of French New Wave director Jacques Demy as dominant influences for the film. (Read how Chazelle interpreted LA as the setting for La La Land.)
La La Land opens with showstopper Another Day of Sun, which transports the truckers’ opening dance routine in Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (which has a cameo by Kelly) to a gridlocked LA highway. The intricate choreography and the long, sweeping takes surpass even Demy’s original, turning the humdrum into art.
Even with film references coming out of its ears, La La Land is at its heart a boy-meets-girl story, set against a hard-nosed city that can make or break the dreams of jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling) and actress Mia (Emma Stone). Chazelle, a 32-year-old jazz buff known for his drumming-of-age hit Whiplash (also onboard this month), brings a contemporary mumblecore twist to the musical genre by putting his characters’ dreams and aspirations above all else.
Chazelle also makes knowing winks at fans of the genre. At the couple’s first musical sequence together, set under LA’s magic-hour sky, Seb imitates Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain lamp post twirl, but Chazelle cheekily punctures the nostalgia with a smartphone ringtone. The hand-drawn Parisian backgrounds seen in the finale are modelled on Kelly’s An American in Paris, but the melancholic message behind the musical sequence is more Demy than Hollywood. Even if you don’t fall in love watching La La Land, you might become infatuated with the films that inspired it.