In cinema’s most famous song-and-dance number, Gene Kelly sings of a “glorious feeling” as he nimbly swings around lamp posts and splashes around a studio set wet with rain.
Singin’ in the Rain’s screen-writers described it as “impromptu fun”, but there’s another reading of the sequence. In the 1950s, a cancer gnawed at the heart of Hollywood: the House Un-American Activities Committee, fixated on weeding out communist sympathisers.
The left-leaning Kelly was not blacklisted, but fled to Europe in 1952 for 19 months before Singin’ in the Rain opened. Film theorist Peter Wollen argues that the routine “represents Kelly’s determination to be optimistic in a miserable political climate”.
Cue: La La Land, the unashamedly nostalgic, all-singing, all-dancing musical that’s cleaning up this awards season with 14 Oscar nominations (a record with All about Eve and Titanic), 11 Bafta nominations and seven wins from seven nominations at the Golden Globes. It’s the film everybody is talking about, having taken $225 million at the worldwide box office since opening in the US in December.
The romanticism and flights of fantasy might not be for everyone, but people who don’t often go to the pictures are queuing up to see it. Love it or hate it, it’s hard to argue with the fact that Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle has created the perfect cinematic escape for our very own “miserable political climate”.
It reminds me of seeing Moulin Rouge, whose UK release in 2001 inadvertently coincided with 9/11 and its aftermath, and the gratitude I felt for the two-hour respite. In the same way, La La Land is helping us through the latest apocalyptic combination of an unstable new President over there, ideological division over here and global uncertainty everywhere.
It’s pertinent that musicals should offer relief during our hard times. The form, rooted in vaudeville, ballet and opera, enjoyed its first flush of ubiquity during the Great Depression. Director and choreographer Busby Berkeley transformed the genre with the remake of Gold Diggers of 1933, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers became marquee stars after the comedic Top Hat and others.
La La Land
Like a high-tech version of the music hall, these films took audiences out of themselves throughout the Second World War, with Kelly, Judy Garland and Ann Miller topping the box office. This was also Hollywood working on a scale that emerging rival television could not.
But musicals lost their commercial lustre in the late 60s as audiences became more sophisticated, or perhaps cynical. Oliver! (1968) was the last musical to win best picture until Chicago in 2003. But everything goes in waves, and sometimes the best way to face the music is dance.
When interviewed about La La Land in Variety, star Emma Stone was quick to refer to these “really rough times” and why having “something so transporting that brings you joy and nostalgia and hope and heartbreak for two hours is something that’s really special and needed right now”.
Annoyingly for theorists, the perfect timing of La La Land is a necessary coincidence. Chazelle wrote it in 2010, having first conceived it when he was at Harvard with composer Justin Hurwitz. Nobody would back the project. Then Whiplash – critically acclaimed, commercially profitable – brought financiers to the door with a $30 million budget (ten times that of Whiplash, but a fraction of what Titanic cost in 1997, incidentally). This allowed the production to be shot and lit to look like a grand confection from the musical’s heyday, albeit set very much in the here and now, with a sly joke about the ubiquity of the Toyota Prius in Hollywood.
It’s replete with in-jokes for cineastes and references to the classics, but we can all enjoy the agenda-setting opening whereby a small black-and-white screen widens out luxuriously to CinemaScope. The film deploys another secret weapon that’s very definitely from the golden age: the long take.
Chazelle describes his two stars, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, as his “Fred and Ginger, Bogart and Bacall” and La La Land draws on Singin’ in the Rain with its routines shot in full screen and only sparingly edited. The stars also actually sing and dance like ordinary people who just happen to be better than you and me at singing and dancing, a key creative decision that grounds their characters – a struggling songwriter and a wannabe actress – and thus their love story.
Our own love story with musicals at the movies may just have been rekindled at a moment when we need it the most.