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.