La La Land: dancing all the way to history

Swing Time: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dance in front of an LA sunset. © Summit Entertainment

Bursting into song was once a hallmark of Hollywood magic — but it has been out of fashion for decades. Now it’s back, critics say it is ‘perfect escapism’ for difficult times. Is that all?

It is a story that Hollywood has told countless times: a boy meets a girl; they both have big dreams; at first they do not get on — but then, inevitably, they fall in love.

And yet it has been decades since Hollywood has told this story in quite this way. La La Land, which is directed by Damien Chazelle, opens with a huge musical number. When its characters begin to flirt, they do so with playful tap dancing and symmetrical dance routines. When they can no longer contain their emotions, they burst into song like it is the most natural thing in the world. And all without a hint of irony.

Such a sight has not been taken seriously in Hollywood since the 1950s, when Gene Kelly swung around a lamp post and brought the genre to its peak in Singin’ in the Rain. But on Sunday night La La Land dominated the Bafta awards, winning five prizes.

The film is full of nostalgic references to the ‘golden age’ of musicals. Its opening number is set during an iconic LA traffic jam — an idea that mirrors one of Kelly’s final films, The Young Girls of Rochefort. At one point its hero, Ryan Gosling, swings around a lamp post of his very own. Its heroine, Emma Stone, wears bright primary colours like the technicolor stars of the 1930s and 40s. As they fall in love, they are swept up in romantic waltzes that evoke the king and queen of Hollywood dance sequences: Fred and Ginger.

For reviewers, the film is a welcome return to a lost genre. ‘This magical musical will transport you from Trump world,’ wrote a grateful Guardian critic.

‘I realised that this must have been what it was like to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers during the Great Depression,’ mused Manohla Dargis at The New York Times. ‘Movies could use more s’wonderful, more music and dance, and way, way more surrealism.’

I’m happy again

Hollywood musicals do not have a reputation for being ‘good’ movies in the way that gritty dramas or pacey thrillers do. But critics — and entertainment awards — have agreed that La La Land is the perfect ‘escapist entertainment in troubled times’ (as The Wall Street Journal put it). And just like Fred and Ginger, or The Wizard of Oz in 1939, it arrived just when we needed it most.

Musicals are far more than just fantasy, say their fans. They do for joy what thrillers do for fear: they enhance it, distilling it to its purest form and channelling our own emotions as they go. That should be celebrated no matter what is happening outside the cinema doors, just as Gene Kelly’s exuberant dance in the rain deserves its place as one of the greatest moments of movie history. That joy has been lost — now that it is back, we should all be grabbing our umbrellas and twirling in the streets.

You Decide

  1. Should musicals be taken seriously?
  2. What is your favourite film genre?


  1. In groups, write a song for a musical about the events of 2016.
  2. What was the best film you saw last year? Write a review which argues why you think it deserves an award.

Some People Say...

“When I watch a musical, it makes me believe life is still beautiful.”

John Woo

What do you think?

Q & A

I hate musicals!
You’re not the first to say so — but does it really make sense to dismiss an entire genre in one go? If it’s romance that bores you, then there are musicals with much darker themes (like Les Misérables). If its the absurdity of bursting into song, then there are more ‘realistic’ ones about performers (like Chicago). Why not find a story that suits you and give it a try?
Why did the old Hollywood musicals die out?
Lots of reasons: cinema was starting to face competition from TV by the 1950s and 60s. Also, as more movie studios were created, there was more pressure to tell new, different kinds of stories. But it was also about taste: as the 20th century progressed people turned to more gritty, darker films.
When can I see La La Land?
It’s been out in the UK from January 12th.

Word Watch

Damien Chazelle
This is the director’s third film. His second, Whiplash, was much darker, about obsession with drumming.
Gene Kelly
The singer, actor and dancer worked in films throughout his life. But he is best known for his roles in movies by MGM studios during the 1940s and 50s, when it produced dozens of musicals, now considered classics.
La La Land won best film, actress, direction, cinematography and music. It also won a record-breaking seven Golden Globes last month, and is nominated for 12 Oscars.
A process for colouring film which was invented in 1916. It produced very bright colours — think of The Wizard of Oz and Snow White.
Fred and Ginger
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were dance partners throughout the 1930s, when they made ten movies together, including Top Hat and Swing Time.
Great Depression
The global economic crisis that lasted between 1929 and 1939. As cinema tickets were relatively cheap escapist entertainment, the movie industry boomed during that era.
A reference to a Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn song in Funny Face (1957).


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