After sweeping up seven Golden Globes, Damien Chazelle’s spangling tribute to Tinseltown, La La Land, is confirmed as one of this winter’s hottest tickets. Cut in the mould of the classic musicals of yesteryear, Chazelle’s third feature film as director, following wide acclaim for his 2015 drumming drama, Whiplash, is a boy-meets-girl romance with a distinctly nostalgic twist. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as struggling young artists battling the odds in pursuit of their dreams, who fall in love against the backdrop of the Hollywood hills.
While it pays notable homage to musicals of the 1950s and 60s, La La Land is also an idiosyncratic, deeply contemporary picture that enraptures the senses. Key to the success of Chazelle’s film, which he both wrote and directed, is the director’s ability to cherry pick from golden oldies of the genre and beyond, while also artfully unveiling his own take on life and love in contemporary Los Angeles.
Ahead of the film’s release, here’s a selection of films you should catch first in order to get the most out of Chazelle’s dazzling creation.
Top Hat (1935)
Director: Mark Sandrich
“The turn in the weather, will keep us together, so I can honestly say, that as far as I’m concerned, it’s a lovely day.” These are the lyrics from one of the most smile-inducing scenes in the 1935 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classic Top Hat, about an American dancer who falls for a model he meets while in London to star in a West End show.
The on-screen chemistry shared by Astaire and Rogers is legendary – providing a template for the heat that Stone and Gosling kindle in La La Land. No wonder that Chazelle screened it for his cast and crew during the production. Top Hat was the dancing duo’s finest outing, abounding with class, style and songs by Irving Berlin. Of all the RKO Rogers-Astaire films, this is the one that shouldn’t be missed.
An American in Paris (1951)
Director: Vincente Minnelli
The sublime An American in Paris won the Oscar for best picture of 1951. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, it’s a bold, experimental, toe-tapping sojourn in the French capital, featuring some of George Gershwin’s best music and with remarkable turns from Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant and Nina Foch.
Though since overshadowed in fame by Kelly’s subsequent Singin’ in the Rain (1952), the film remains a giddying step forward in ambition for the movie musical. It culminates in an awe-inspiring 20-minute ballet sequence, which was reputedly inspired by the filmmakers’ admiration for the ballet sequences in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948). The breadth and invention on display here, together with its enchanted vision of a city, are a key touchstone for La La Land. Quite simply… ’s wonderful.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Directors: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Starring the terrific trio of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and the late Debbie Reynolds, this 1952 musical satire of the coming of the ‘talkies’ sits proudly at number 20 in the Sight & Sound poll of all-time greatest movies.
Ryan Gosling recently revealed that Singin’ in the Rain was a direct influence and inspiration on La La Land. Apparently they watched the film every day during the shoot. The fruit of that research can be felt in La La Land’s seamless transitions from flamboyant song-and-dance numbers to witty, heart-on-its-sleeve dialogue. With its remarkable quality to lift audiences out of the doldrums, Singin’ in the Rain is the film musical par excellence, unlikely to ever be bettered.
Rebel without a Cause (1955)
Director: Nicholas Ray
Nicholas Ray’s 1955 melodrama stars James Dean as a delinquent youth pushing against society in Eisenhower-era America. One of the key early teen movies, it’s a pop culture classic, notable also for its expressive colour and striking widescreen compositions.
Rebel without a Cause is directly cited in Chazelle’s film. When Sebastian (Gosling) is shocked to discover that his newfound love (Stone) has never seen Ray’s classic, he takes her to a screening. Then, following the film, they head up to the Griffith Observatory, which is the setting for a magical moment in Rebel without a Cause when Dean and his friend Plato (Sal Mineo) ponder their place in the universe during a school visit. In Chazelle’s film, the same observatory affords a giddying dance number among the stars.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Director: Jacques Demy
French new wave director Jacques Demy’s bittersweet 1964 musical is a clear influence on La La Land, both in its kaleidoscopic colour palette and in its fusion of the realistic and the fairytale. Blending an everyday realism with the tropes of a Hollywood musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg stars Catherine Deneuve as the daughter of an umbrella shop keeper. She becomes pregnant by a local mechanic (Nino Castelnuovo) who leaves her high and dry when he must go to fight in Algeria.
A heart-wrenching, delicately crafted tale, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is told entirely in song, with music by Michel Legrand. As with La La Land, Demy manages to cut to the quick of the realities of love, never forgetting that the giddy heights caused by Cupid’s arrow can also send us crashing back down to earth.
If time allows, try to fit in two of Demy’s other, equally fine, films. The pastel-coloured masterpiece Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) and – especially – his dreamlike, LA-based Model Shop (1969).
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
It might come as a surprise to find Quentin Tarantino’s anthology gangster film on this list, but this Palme d’Or-winning modern classic, starring John Travolta and Bruce Willis in career-reviving performances, arguably pulls off a similar feat to La La Land in its remodelling of Los Angeles in the mind’s eye of its director. The LA that Tarantino crafts is both recognisable, yet, at the same time, a place of his own making, one infused by the films, comic books and pulp fiction he loves.
Likewise, Chazelle crafts his much more optimistic (and less crime ridden) view of the city, one which is similarly grounded in recognisable landmarks – from its opening traffic jam on the I-105 on – but steeped in the lore and traditions of the Hollywood dream factory.
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