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Can Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s La La Land help us manage the Trump era?

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The golden age of the Hollywood musical offered reprieve from recession and war. Can this all-singing all-dancing cinema do the same now?

Cant sing. Cant act. Balding. Can dance a little. The famous, perhaps apocryphal, description of Fred Astaires first screen exam jump unbidden to my intellect 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 perfume of movies that have gone before and yet letting Emma Stone and Gosling, two of todays most attractive stars, to reveal themselves in a new sun. They play Seb, a jazz pianist, and Mia, an aspiring actor, who fulfilled, fall in love, sing and dance like its 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 remembering the well-groomed charm of Astaire is testimony to how charismatic his performance is.( And hes 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 evoked a lost world of romance.

Director Damien Chazelle had wanted to build La La Land ever since he was at college with the movies composer, Justin Hurwitz. As he has written, musicals favour emotions over logic. Theyre not a literal reflection of life theyre about how life feels. His first cinema, made in 2009 as a project at Harvard as a tribute to the mood of Jacques Demys The Umbrellas of Cherbourg , was the musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench , shooting in black and white. Its US gross was only $33,000, indicating that the world wasnt exactly waiting for a narrative about a jazz trumpeter and his desire to find a girlfriend. Chazelle had to wait for the success of 2014s 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, get out of her auto, stretching her arms and bursting into a anthem 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 image. 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 sort Hollywood invented.

The Hollywood film musical is not the same as a filmed version of a stage production. It is also a different animal 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 aspirations of the studios became more complicated. They realised that cinema could create a fiction land bigger than any Broadway stage, and full of dazzling imagery, beautiful women and toe-tapping choreography. It was an art kind that allowed directors to take risks and to experiment , notes movie historian Clive Hirschhorn, writer of The Hollywood Musical and a biography of Gene Kelly. From the late 20 s until the late 50 s, when TV dimmed its sun, the movie musical became a thing of wonder, a refuge in time of recession and war, an assertion of the human spirit.

Ginger
Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in The Barkleys of Broadway, 1949. Photo: MGM Studios/ Getty Images

From the early 30 s, Busby Berkeley, among others, defined the tone, perfecting a style that turned excess into art, marshalling huge number of dancers to create exquisite, elaborated patterns in such Warner Bros movies as Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933 . Meanwhile, at RKO, Astaire and Ginger Rogers were putting their own indelible mark on the movie musical, in a series of romances as sharp and sassy as their stylised black-and-white design. Astaires perfectionism may have built Rogers feet hemorrhaged, but together they induced dancing seem as effortless and natural as breathing, yet complex enough to take the breath away. Their soundtracks were drawn from the best use of US popular music: Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.

Theres 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 ), its 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 terminates came to those who deserved them. They are the ultimate fantasy, recognisable yet distant.

The Berkeley-choreographed 42 nd Street , released in 1933, is exposing given this context. There is no doubting the suffering that afflicts Julian( played by Warner Baxter ), the impresario prepared to danger his health for a make after the Wall Street crash has cleaned him out; you cant miss the chorus girls desperation for security as much as notoriety. When Julian rehearses Peggy( Ruby Keeler) before her debut Ill 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.

Radiant
Radiant Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon , 1953. Photo: Allstar/ MGM

A similar quality haunts Vincente Minnellis The Band Wagon , constructed 20 year 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 tells it is one of his favourite musicals, quoting Minnellis supple and graceful camerawork, but adding its 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 peoples dreamings is personified by the kind. 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 its like to cling to a dream when the odds seem stacked against you, and the ache “youre feeling” when that dreaming is dashed. They can capture like no other genre the elation and the triumph when the dreaming goes 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 novelists. They focus on artists as they can transform drab reality by the creative power of their work. Another of Chazelles favourite musicals is Summer Stock , built in 1950, which features a scene where Gene Kelly, alone in a darkened theatre, utilizes a creaking committee and a piece of newspaper to weave a tap dance of relaxed improvisatory joy almost out of thin air. He transforms the mundane into sorcery in front of our eyes. It is art in action.

The most obvious instance of this is Singin in the Rain , many people selection as the best movie 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 cinema 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, supposes within supposes. Throughout its history, the film musical has allowed directors to assert the value of dreaming, particularly at times when peoples 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 .

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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