I grew up on movie musicals, but the ones I knew best were film adaptations of Broadway shows, which used to be a dominant genre. West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Oliver! These were not only nominated for the Best Picture Oscar – they won.
Also nominated were the stage-musical adaptations Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl and The Music Man. I saw every one of these films in the 1960s, when they were first released.
Good thing I saw them in the theaters, because in the 1950s and 1960s, when I was a kid, if you didn’t see a movie in the theaters, you had to watch the TV listings to see when the movie was going to show up on the small screen.
When a major musical made it to television – a year or two after it stopped showing in the theaters – it was hugely promoted by the network that won the bidding, and it aired in prime time. But anything that wasn’t popular enough to warrant a primetime showing had to be looked for and waited for on late-night or late-afternoon television.
There was one other choice: specialty theaters. Often just a little tatty and always old-fashioned, these movie houses would show old movies on the big screen – the way they were meant to be shown. That’s the kind of theater where my mother would go to see the operettas of Sigmund Romberg, Rudolf Friml, and, above all, Victor Herbert.
For my mother, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy were the greatest stars who had ever lived – because they could sing. Mom knew that Nelson Eddy was quite possibly the most wooden actor who ever appeared on screen. Not for one moment did he ever look fully comfortable, though he was often fervent, his best emotion.
Perhaps his finest moment was singing “Stout-Hearted Men” in New Moon. And his worst moments were pretty much every time he and Jeanette MacDonald sang a love duet. But that was all right, because in all duets he existed only to harmonize with Jeanette MacDonald.
Thus I grew up with roots in both the American Broadway musical and the European operetta, as translated to film. The full color spectacle of the Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe book musicals held no loftier a place in my heart than the black-and-white costume operettas.
But hidden away between these two traditions was a third one: the original movie musical.
In a way, these were the most daring musicals, because their songs never had a chance to be tried out before live audiences. They were heard for the first time on the movie screen, to sink or swim as best they could.
And yet, because they didn’t come with a built-in audience of fans who already knew and loved the music – because in those days, sheet music of individual songs held the place now occupied by .mp3 tracks – the original movie musicals that made it really made it.
As a kid, my favorite musical of all time had to be Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), in which the great Howard Keel and the vivid Jane Powell sang one of the best scores … while Russ Tamblyn won our hearts as a dancer and the actor playing Gideon, the youngest of the seven brothers.
But there were other great originals, like An American in Paris. Using music George Gershwin had written for other purposes, we enjoyed Gene Kelly as a desperate artist in Paris, falling in love with Leslie Caron, with comic relief from Oscar Levant.
The Disney animated musicals hardly counted, even though original songs from Snow White and Sleeping Beauty made it onto American pianos. But there were some live-action Disney musicals, like The Happiest Millionaire and Summer Magic, culminating with Mary Poppins. And of course there was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
And then it was over. As television wrecked the once-dependable audience for family entertainment in the movie theaters, movies shifted from Howard Keel to Dustin Hoffman. Gritty realism – that’s what movies could do that, in those days, television couldn’t.
Not that movie musicals didn’t go down swingin’: Julie Andrews, who had followed Mary Poppins with The Sound of Music and Thoroughly Modern Millie, tanked miserably with Star! and Darling Lili. These big-budget shows had decent scores, and Fiddler on the Roof managed to be a huge hit in 1971. But with that exception, the big movie musical died in 1970.
But the audience hadn’t died. Star! and Darling Lili failed because they weren’t very good; as usual, Hollywood assumed that these movies failed because their genre was “over” instead of because they were kind of bad.
In 1974, Jack Haley Jr. created the compilation movie That’s Entertainment!, which assembled clips from all the great MGM musicals – many of which I had never seen. It was in That’s Entertainment! that I first saw Donald O’Connor’s brilliant comic turn in “Make ’Em Laugh,” from Singin’ in the Rain.
That’s right. Even though I grew up on movie musicals, I had never seen the ultimate movie-movie, Singin’ in the Rain. I saw Gene Kelly splash around with the title song only in That’s Entertainment!, when my mother realized that she had let me down by failing to take me to one of the specialty-house showings of Singin’ in the Rain, she was mortified.
Now, Singin’ in the Rain was not one of her very favorites, so it wasn’t as high a priority as catching every Jeanette MacDonald movie ever made and almost every Howard Keel musical (besides Seven Brides, I was taken to see Kismet, Rose Marie and Annie Get Your Gun).
Yet I was wakened many a morning with my mother singing – in her glorious soprano voice – “Good morning, good morning” from Singin’ in the Rain. I was shocked when I finally heard the real words and realized it was not meant to be a perky song to waken children from a night of slumber.
When I finally saw Singin’ in the Rain, it instantly moved to the top of my list of the great movie musicals.
There have been a few attempts to revive the movie musical, but they all suffered from artiness and nostalgia. Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart, for example, was simply boring, and the cinematography made everything look artificial and annoying.
But Disney’s animated musicals kept making money – even the weak ones – and with Beauty and the Beast and Lion King, everybody could see that the audience for original movie musicals was huge – as long as actual human beings weren’t shown singing and dancing on the screen.
Which brings me to the best original movie musical since the 1960s: La La Land.
I was so afraid that this was going to be as empty and affected as One from the Heart, but to my delight, La La Land opened with a huge, brilliant dance number.
Not the fake editing-room “dancing” of the hideous Moulin Rouge, but real dancing, choreographed by the brilliant Mandy Moore, whom we know best from So You Think You Can Dance. Shockingly, her credit on IMDb Pro comes under the heading “Miscellaneous Crew,” even though La La Land’s credibility as a legitimate movie musical depended so heavily on how she handled the dancing.
The opening number comes as Los Angeles traffic is at a standstill. Characters we will come to know well are among the anonymous drivers who, frustrated at the wait, all get out of their cars and dance with West Side Story exuberance.
I’m sure they didn’t risk the lives of the dancers by really having them do kicks and other vigorous moves on a real overpass; surely it was a set, with no perilous drop for any dancer who missed a step. But as a sympathetic acrophobe – I’m actually more terrified to see you standing at the brink of a steep drop-off than to stand there myself – I could hardly bear to watch at times.
And yet my wife and I both knew, from this opening number, that writer-director Damien Chazelle knew what a movie musical is, and that he had decided to make a good one.
These days, everybody panders to current musical fads, thinking that movie musicals died because the audience got tired of the music. This was never true (as witness the Disney animated musicals) – what we didn’t like were bad Broadway-style scores.
But even Broadway has mostly given up on Broadway-style music. I find the rap influence on Hamilton, for instance, to make the score unlistenable for an old coot like me – even though they have glorious voices and, here and there, a good song.
And most current movie musicals – like the Pitch Perfect and High School Musical series, as well as the musicals about rap stars and street dancers – hide from the commitment of a real musical. They’re about people who are putting on a show, so they always sing songs in the context of being performers who sing songs.
In a real movie musical, the characters burst forth in song as part of their real life. Donald O’Connor sings and dances “Make ’Em Laugh” as his character explains comedy to his friends, not as a performance in a show-within-the-show.
And that’s what La La Land committed to doing right from the start.
But because the movie-musical tradition has faded so completely from public consciousness, Chazelle made the wise decision to have fewer musical numbers than the old movie musicals used to have. Or at least so it felt to me. It takes a while before Ryan Gosling, as jazz-musician Sebastian, and Emma Stone, as would-be actress Mia, find themselves dancing on a residential street in Beverly Hills (or was it Bel-air?) as they ostensibly search for where Mia’s car is parked.
The song they sing while they’re dancing is “A Lovely Night,” in which they assure each other that despite the romantic setting and their obvious attraction to each other, they are not going to succumb to anything as silly as love.
The dancing is kept simple – yet it is real dancing, and Gosling and Stone both do it very well. Also, this first duet is real singing – though they sing lightly, conversationally, so we don’t have to watch singers boom out a song at full volume to a person whose face is six inches away.
From these gentle opening numbers, we gradually progress through a surprisingly good score, until we come at last to the brilliant climactic number, in which Emma Stone auditions for a role that is obviously the great opportunity of her life. She is told, not to read a scene, but to tell a story, and so her song is that story, and it’s a wonderful story, and the words are wonderful, and Emma Stone sings wonderfully, finally letting us hear that all those gentle songs did not mean that she didn’t have a big voice – when she needed it.
By the end of that audition scene, we absolutely know that La La Land is not a “tribute” to movie musicals, as so many short-sighted critics are calling it. It is a movie musical – using movie-musical songs and movie-musical dancing, almost as if we hadn’t skipped 47 years.
La La Land is the real thing, and it has earned a place among the great and memorable movie musicals of all time. It’s not “better” than Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or Singin’ in the Rain, but it deserves to be listed in the same breath with them.
Between the last serious westerns during the era when westerns dominated the movies, we didn’t have to wait so very long before Unforgiven and Silverado showed us that the western was still a living genre in which powerful stories could be told. And besides, Clint Eastwood had almost single-handedly kept the western movie alive after True Grit, so there never really was a very long time in which no good westerns appeared on the big screen.
But the movie musical suffered a drought that led many of us to despair of ever seeing a real movie musical again. Chicago was costumed by a pornographer; Moulin Rouge was choreographed by a music-video editor on meth. Almost every attempt at a movie musical after 1970 failed because nobody actually wanted to make an authentic movie musical.
Everybody was trying to transform the genre. As if somebody tried to do a “new” western by having all the Indians be ’70s-jive-talking blacks. It might be a good movie, but what it would not be is a western.
La La Land is a genuine, full-fledged movie musical in the great tradition. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone can dance – not like Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire or Cyd Charisse or Ginger Rogers, but well enough to be a pleasure to watch. They can also sing – not like Howard Keel or Jane Powell, but their voices are exactly right for the songs they’re given.
And Gosling and Stone can act. This is truly a book musical, in that there’s a real and moving story, and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are better actors than any of the musical stars of the past. This shows no disrespect to Gordon MacRae and Howard Keel, or to Jane Powell or Debbie Reynolds. Their roles in those musicals didn’t require the depth that Gosling and Stone are allowed to show in La La Land.
The first time I saw Stone and Gosling together was in the brilliant movie Crazy, Stupid, Love, where they had exactly the right kind of chemistry: charming antagonism, mutual attraction, playful banter, sincere tenderness.
Casting these two was a brilliant stroke. Everybody else in the movie is also well cast, and the performances of the scenes in this wise and tender script are spot on. The songs are clever and appropriate – though I can’t hum the tune of any of them. (Maybe after I’ve seen it again …)
Is this the best movie of 2016?
For the Golden Globes, which separate comedy/musical from drama, it was the best in the comedy category; they got it right. Even compared to really good films like Deadpool and Florence Foster Jenkins. But best drama? That’s still Arrival, even though the Golden Globes didn’t even nominate it.
Probably, Hollywood will misinterpret La La Land’s success the way it misinterpreted the phenomenal success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. They’ll try to imitate La La Land with the same ham-handed stupidity they used to try to capitalize on Passion – they’ll make all the usual mistakes and then declare that La La Land was a fluke, and the movie musical is still dead.
Or maybe not. Maybe they’ll find people who actually understand the form and put a little money behind similarly tender-hearted, artful, skillful movies.