La La Land is where Damien Chazelle and his team are right now after breaking the record for the most Golden Globes ever won, and equalling the record for the most Oscar nominations. It’s been called one of the most original and inventive films in a long time, despite its deep association with, and adoration for, one of cinema’s classic genres. Musicals owe their status to the Golden Era of the 1940s and 1960s which captured public imagination so magnificently.
What made this era so ‘Golden?’ Well, it gave us historical relics such as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). The happiness and care-free attitude of these films would have provided escapism from harsh socio-economic realities, and go on to epitomise the high tide of optimism and freedom which emerged in the post-war boom.
Not all of these films turned a blind eye to the real world or its past – The Sound of Music (1965) being an obvious example – but the overwhelming themes of positivity and joy ensured that they lived on in popular memory to the point where they are still celebrated to this day.
But the tide took a harsh turn when the heydays of the boom came to a screeching halt, and on that note the move towards more realistic and gritty films gained momentum. For musicals, it was a case of adapt or die.
Actually, it was a case of adapt or end up like the miserable flop that was Can’t Stop the Music (1980) – the first ever winner of a Golden Raspberry. Studios had to react, lest they suffer the same fate as the Village People.
Therefore, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Forbidden Zone (1980) and Little Shop of Horrors (1986) took musicals in a darker and often sexually charged direction. Given the re-emergence of unemployment in the mid 70s and the propagation of sexual freedom in the 1960s, this development is hardly surprising.
In the 1990s, animation started to give musicals a spoonful of sugar-sweet glee again, and it went down very well. Many different studios cashed in, but it was Disney that firmly grasped the musical reins with their great Renaissance period. Anything and everything with Mickey Mouse’s stamp of approval was lapped up by adults and children alike, as singing and dancing became a mainstay of family viewing.
In stark contrast, live-action musicals retained a dark edginess. Moulin Rouge! (2001) is set in a cabaret-turned-brothel. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) is about a murderous barber set on revenge. Both of these, and others, won over critics and audiences and yet could not be further away from the toothy smiles evoked by musicals half a century earlier.
So what has changed? La La Land, seen as the film to beat at this year’s Oscars, is so completely different to what can be called the modern genre. And yet it is seeing audiences waltz into the cinemas and winning over the sceptics with its undeniable charm and the spring in its step. How has one film completely defied the norm and come out unscathed?
Well, as mentioned earlier, the early musicals never really went away. Which die-hard film fan would not consider The Wizard of Oz (1939) a must watch, for instance? Evidently there is a reason that these films are dusted off and shown on TV almost constantly. The appeal of these films lives on. La La Land deliberately evokes these old appeals, harking back to the era of jazz, joyful melancholies and bright yellow dresses.
It does not, however, give La La Land enough credit to boil down its popularity to mere nostalgia. There is something else, and we may have 2016 to thank. Everything that has happened in the last 12 months – celebrity deaths, seismic political shifts, and the torrid experiences of too many people – has run us down. Viewers are in for a dark and brooding experience whenever they scroll through their Facebook feeds.
Chazelle’s film succeeds in creating nostalgia for the cinematic old days, when the rise of the musical was timed just right. The history of the musical film has been tied up with the wider context of the world from which it distracted its audiences. By going back to the past, La La Land delivers a beautiful pause in the march towards an uncertain future, and seals its place in the never ending tale of song and dance.