“Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” The famous, possibly apocryphal, description of Fred Astaire’s first screen test sprung unbidden to my mind as I watched Ryan Gosling in the new film La La Land. It is the most dazzling confection, a full-blown Hollywood musical confidently set in contemporary Los Angeles, a movie carrying the scent of movies that have gone before and yet allowing Emma Stone and Gosling, two of today’s most attractive stars, to reveal themselves in a new light. They play Seb, a jazz pianist, and Mia, an aspiring actor, who meet, fall in love, sing and dance like it’s 1929, bringing the genre blazingly back to life.
That you can think of Gosling, a brooding presence in films such as Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines, at the same time as recalling the well-groomed charm of Astaire is testimony to how charismatic his performance is. (And he’s not really balding.) But as he and Stone shuffle their shoes softly beneath a lamppost and sing gently of love with an unembarrassed grace, they evoke a lost world of romance.
Director Damien Chazelle had wanted to make La La Land ever since he was at college with the film’s composer, Justin Hurwitz. As he has written, musicals “favour emotions over logic. They’re not a literal reflection of life – they’re about how life feels.” His first film, made in 2009 as a project at Harvard as a tribute to the mood of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, was the musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, shot in black and white. Its US gross was only $33,000, indicating that the world wasn’t exactly waiting for a story about a jazz trumpeter and his desire to find a girlfriend. Chazelle had to wait for the success of 2014’s Whiplash before he could convince anyone of the value of a new big-screen musical.
Yet from the moment La La Land begins, with a woman stuck in traffic on a freeway, getting out of her car, stretching her arms and bursting into a song that triggers a full-scale production number with the energy and drive of Fame and the chutzpah of On the Town, it is irresistible. No wonder it has just won the New York Film Critics Circle award for best picture. In a time of uncertainty, it takes America back to the most glorious days of the silver screen – and reasserts the value of an art form Hollywood invented.
The Hollywood film musical is not the same as a filmed version of a stage production. It is also a different beast from the Broadway musical, though they are closely related. Initially, Hollywood simply imported the stars of the stage and stuck them in front of the camera: Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice among them. But gradually, the filmic ambitions of the studios became more complicated. They realised that film could create a fantasy land bigger than any Broadway stage, and full of dazzling imagery, beautiful women and toe-tapping choreography. “It was an art form that allowed directors to take risks and to experiment,” notes film historian Clive Hirschhorn, author of The Hollywood Musical and a biography of Gene Kelly. From the late 20s until the late 50s, when TV dimmed its light, the film musical became a thing of wonder, a refuge in time of recession and war, an assertion of the human spirit.
From the early 30s, Busby Berkeley, among others, set the tone, perfecting a style that turned excess into art, marshalling huge numbers of dancers to create exquisite, elaborate patterns in such Warner Bros films as Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933. Meanwhile, at RKO, Astaire and Ginger Rogers were putting their own indelible mark on the film musical, in a series of romances as sharp and sassy as their stylised black-and-white design. Astaire’s perfectionism may have made Rogers’ feet bleed, but together they made dancing look as effortless and natural as breathing, yet complex enough to take the breath away. Their soundtracks were drawn from the best of US popular music: Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.
There’s something entrancing about these films, a kind of innocence that sits alongside their sophistication. When Astaire serenades Rogers, her hair covered in shampoo, with “The Way You Look Tonight” in Swing Time (1936), it’s a recognisably intimate vision of love, something everyone can dream of even if the setting is impossibly glamorous. No wonder such movies carried audiences through the Great Depression. They offered a vision where life was lovely, people were beautiful and happy endings came to those who deserved them. They are the ultimate fantasy, recognisable yet distant.
The Berkeley-choreographed 42nd Street, released in 1933, is revealing in this context. There is no doubting the misery that afflicts Julian (played by Warner Baxter), the impresario prepared to risk his health for a hit after the Wall Street crash has cleaned him out; you can’t miss the chorus girls’ desperation for security as much as fame. When Julian rehearses Peggy (Ruby Keeler) before her debut – “I’ll either have a live leading lady or a dead chorus girl” – real issues are on the line. The truthfulness of the frame sets off the glory of the dance routines.
A similar quality haunts Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, made 20 years later. Astaire, by then 54, plays with rueful charm a fading star who hopes a Broadway musical will revive his career, battling a crazed director and falling in love with his young co-star Gaby (a radiant Cyd Charisse). Chazelle says it is one of his favourite musicals, citing Minnelli’s “supple and graceful camerawork”, but adding “it’s a great portrait of the artist as an older man, learning what to hold on to, what to adapt to – in short, how to live.”
This is what the best film musicals do. Their heads may be in the clouds, but they are rooted in reality; the fragility of people’s dreams is embodied by the form. “I think the musical can be just as truthful as any realist genre,” Chazelle writes. “Musicals can get at the way it feels to hold hands in a movie theatre, when your heart is beating a thousand times per second. They can nail what it feels like to fall in love. They can describe with absolute accuracy what it’s like to cling to a dream when the odds seem stacked against you, and the pain you feel when that dream is dashed. They can capture like no other genre the joy and the triumph when the dream comes true.”
It is for this reason, as much as for the practical one of having people who can sing and dance and mount a flashy production number, that US film musicals are so often about actors, singers, dancers and writers. They focus on artists because they can transform drab reality by the creative power of their work. Another of Chazelle’s favourite musicals is Summer Stock, made in 1950, which features a scene where Gene Kelly, alone in a darkened theatre, uses a squeaking board and a piece of newspaper to weave a tap dance of relaxed improvisatory joy almost out of thin air. He transforms the mundane into magic in front of our eyes. It is art in action.
The most obvious example of this is Singin’ in the Rain, many people’s choice as the best film musical of all time (though when it was released in 1952, it won far less critical praise than An American in Paris which had been in cinemas the previous year). This is a film about film, a love letter to the industry it depicts.
La La Land shares those qualities. It is a film where other films – Notorious, Rebel Without a Cause, Casablanca – appear on screen, but it remains utterly itself. When Seb and Mia dance amid the stars in the planetarium at the Griffith Observatory, they are entering a building they have just watched on screen, and transforming it into their own romantic wonderland.
Layers within layers, thoughts within thoughts. Throughout its history, the film musical has allowed directors to assert the value of dreaming, particularly at times when people’s hopes were being crushed by reality. The release of La La Land as the world is facing the arrival of President Trump is more apposite than Chazelle could have imagined when he planned the film all those years ago. Its bittersweet beauty is the perfect antidote to the world around it. Just as in the old days.
• La La Land is released in the UK on 13 January.