Say what you will about the strong fan base of La La Land and its probable domination of the upcoming Oscars after sweeping so many of the guild awards, not to mention the critical backlash against it that I have seen in the press and among scholars on Facebook, but Damien Chazelle certainly knows the history of the Hollywood film musical. The allusions to An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face, and Sweet Charity are pretty apparent, as is the homage to the French homage to Hollywood, Young Girls of Rochefort.
I am surely not the first person to note this, but La La Land is also a formal throwback to the great Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals of the 1930s. Consider the numbers in Top Hat: “No Strings,” Astaire’s solo in which he loudly disclaims romance but then dances softly on the floor above in order to lull an angry Rogers to sleep; “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)?,” a challenge dance between the two stars, which awakens her feelings for him; the title tune, a show number for Astaire to display his expertise and masculinity; “Cheek to Cheek,” a waltz that clinches the couples’ romance and metaphorically expresses sexual consummation; and “The Piccolino,” a communal song and dance celebrating the couple, which is also reprised at the end as the two stars dance away together. The numbers direct the progress of the narrative, with the boy-meets-girl plot pushed forward by the musical elements, which is also to say that the numbers are where the substance of the film resides, not the plot. The numbers are its flagship sequences.
La La Land works the same way, with its numbers structuring the romance of Seb (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone). La La Land opens rather than closes with the communal number, “Another Day of the Sun,” and then shifts the film’s viewpoint to Mia. She gets the equivalent of Astaire’s “No Strings” number as her roommates lure her into singing and dancing with them in “Someone in the Crowd.” After Mia meets Seb again at the pool party and they leave together, their challenge dance, “A Lovely Night,” awakens their mutual attraction even while the lyrics deny it. Their subsequent dance among the stars in “Planetarium,” the metaphoric expression of their sexual consummation, and their singing of “City of Stars” doubly perform the same function as “Cheek to Cheek” to celebrate the pair’s chemistry as a romantic couple. The final song is Mia’s show number, “The Audition,” which lands her the part in the film that makes her a movie star. The fantasy finale or “Epilogue,” which picks up the earlier “Another Day of the Sun” for one of its main musical themes, then closes La La Land somewhat like the reprise of “The Piccolino” in Top Hat.
I realize that “Epilogue” is more complex than that Top Hat reprise, that the plaintive melody of “City of Stars” belies its lyrics to focus attention on Seb’s opening and closing question, and that I have knowingly left out in my summary John Legend’s show number, “Start a Fire,” which is the sellout by Seb that eventually breaks up the couple. Nonetheless, it is clear that Chazelle more or less follows the Astaire-Rogers template for his romantic couple in order for their similarity and differences from the famous team — and what they still personify for musicals as the epitome of romanticized heterosexual coupling — to stand out more forcefully, again in musical terms.
I have heard both praise and criticism of Stone’s and Gosling’s singing and dancing, in contrast with the expertise of the old stars like Astaire and Rogers, or Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, who once populated the genre. I think the ordinary quality of the singing may be intentional since Stone’s and Gosling’s voices do not seem amplified at a higher aural register, as it would have been at MGM, say: despite Stone’s and Gosling’s stardom, these are ordinary people with unrealistic dreams who enter a musical where dreaming is possible. Their dreaming is then given form and expression by the numbers, which set up a counterpoint to the predictability of the narrative. The opening number–when traffic stops on the freeway, and everyone but Seb and Mia get out of their cars to sing, dance, and do their specialty bits–tells us right away that musicals express a utopian sensibility–not as an escape from but as an escape to a stylized kind of experience that is more vital and energizing, more imaginative and fulfilling, than everyday life, where one is inevitably stuck. The utopian “Epilogue,” which then revises the narrative entirely in musical terms, doing so in ways that make the genre’s history seem fully present, contrasts with the “real” world in which Mia has a great career, a husband she loves, and a child she adores, while Seb has his club, preserving what he considers to be the purity of jazz.
I don’t think what either character specifically dreams is as important as that they are dreamers. After all, in “City of Stars” Seb states his dreams have come true from his being in love, but he still asks if the city shines so brightly only for him. In the golden age of Hollywood musicals, the romance and professional plots always coincided before the end credits rolled; the couple is the show, and the show is the couple, as the end of The Band Wagon explicitly announced. With its fantasy epilogue, however, La La Land closes by effectively and permanently disaggregating the show from the couple; the epilogue recognizes the utopian pleasures of the musical while the framing of the fantasy registers the impossibility of sustaining that utopian spirit in “real” life.
Featured Image credit: Oscar statues in 2012 by Ivan Bandura, CC By 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.