How modern Hollywood transformed the movie musical (for better and for worse)
The following is an excerpt from The Movie Musical!, by film historian Jeanine Basinger, an in-depth history of the singing, dancing, happy-making world of Hollywood musicals. The book publishes Tuesday and is available for pre-order.
In 2016, two musicals opened in theaters. The first was a mockumentary called Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping, with Maya Rudolph, Andy Samberg, and the Lonely Island group. It was satiric but still a true musical with good songs and performances, plus funny comedy. This movie sank without a trace. In the fall of 2016, a second musical called La La Land appeared. Critics nationwide swooned, dropped to their knees, and proclaimed the American movie musical had been revolutionized. Audiences immediately followed their leaders, turning out in happy droves, proclaiming the rebirth of an old form in new terms—and sending box-office figures to the skies. Even detractors—a small group—bent over backwards to say that “after all, we’ve got to remember that director/writer Damien Chazelle loves musicals.” La La Land soared upward on an Oscar-bound trajectory, and then, with its creators, cast, and crew tuxedoed and tiaraed and ready for their victory lap, an ending right out of a Hollywood musical script occurred: The front-runners were unseated by a low-budget underdog, Moonlight, and the Best Picture Oscar was snatched from the hands of the anointed ones. La La Land lost in a wild-ass finish never seen before in Oscar history. After that, a lot of people stepped up to say they’d never liked La La Land anyway, and what was all the fuss about? Moonlight was new and original, they said. La La Land was pastiche. Not since Harry Truman upset Thomas Dewey had so many previously uncounted voters appeared to say they knew it all along.
The musical genre was left standing at the altar. Uncertainty reigned. Based on the La La Land success, new musicals were already in the works, and since they cost a lot of money, no one wanted to talk about the success of La La Land being a fluke, or even possibly a mistake. What had happened to the revolution of the musical it had supposedly brought, to its originality, to its “new take” on an old genre, to its swooning critics? What, after all, was La La Land to the history of the musical?
La La Land opens up directly into a precredit musical number of the old-school MGM variety: a one-take cinematic phenomenon in which ordinary people (although dressed in color-coordinated outfits) are stuck in an L.A. freeway jam on a bright, sunny day. They emerge from their cars and dance in CinemaScope, and when they finish, the credits roll. This is about as good an establishment of a musical universe as can be planned. The choreography may not be great, the song may not be a hummer, but the idea is impeccable: ordinary people on their way to work sing and dance, which means an audience hasn’t had to transition out and into, but just ease themselves into a musical world. The film continues with a little plot for the “meet brute” of the leading lady and leading man, insulting each other with appropriate digits as he honks and she doesn’t respond fast enough, so he speeds by her in disgust. The heroine (Emma Stone) goes home to her apartment, and her three roommates (soon to disappear from the plot) try to convince her to accompany them to a party—again done as a musical number. An audience has sat down, found a musical world, found the movie’s title, found its lead characters, and moved onward into a continued musical universe in which all the characters sing and dance as they live. And then that’s over with. No more of that stuff. The world doesn’t ever sing and dance again, although musicians play in jazz clubs, at parties by the pool, and in concerts. The two leads, in their private world together, become the location of musical expression: they become the people who sing and dance, even though neither of them can really do either very well. The tradition of the American musicals the film sets out to emulate—a place where everyone and everything is musical—is gone.
La La Land isn’t worried about any of that. Why? Because its “an homage.” It’s about nostalgia, although the filmmakers are nostalgic for something they didn’t experience when it was new. Their nostalgia is about nostalgia, and it’s also about superiority: “We love old musicals and we’ve seen them—have you?” There are references (admitted proudly by the filmmakers) to Singin’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; and critics hopped on others, such as Goldie Hawn’s floating upward in Everyone Says I Love You, backdrops similar to An American in Paris, or Astaire and Eleanor Powell tapping across a sparkling floor in Broadway Melody of 1940. Few mentioned Marge and Gower Champion dancing across a blue sky with stars in Lovely to Look At, because that remake of the Astaire/Rogers Roberta isn’t considered chic. It’s not on the list of movies you need to have seen—it’s got Red Skelton, for heaven’s sake, and Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, not cool people.
Director/writer Damien Chazelle talked often in interviews about his love of old musicals, listing Jacques Demy’s poetic Umbrellas of Cherbourg as “the greatest movie ever made.” This explains everything, because it isn’t, but it is stylish, romantic, dreamy, melancholy, and sadly, sweetly nostalgic about a young love in which the two leads end up with others. And it’s also something else: quintessentially French. La La Land is not like an MGM musical. It’s not energetic, optimistic, or determined to pin down joy for its characters. It’s not American. And despite the leaping about on cars in its opening number and all the camera movement it beautifully spools out in key scenes, it’s not kinetic. The screen is dead around its protagonists, and one of its main stylistic devices (used at least three times) is to drop lighting out of the frame around one of its two stars, leaving him/her in a lone and empty spotlight, to share isolation, to illustrate the need for something that isn’t there, and to project the idea of a dream . . . and the feeling of sadness.
Great musicals turn a location into a dream itself—the postwar Paris of An American in Paris, the sizzling glitz of Las Vegas in One from the Heart, the turn-of-the-century family home in Meet Me in St. Louis. Since making space into a musical world is a primary challenge of the genre, the essence of any setting, real or unreal, has to be interpreted and designed as the “persona” of itself. Paris becomes “that star” where all Americans want to go to find their more artistic, freer selves, with better food to eat. Las Vegas upgrades personal escape, gambling on one-night relationships, taking risks, on the movie set of our dreams; and St. Louis gives us the idea of America we were promised as children: safe, familial, and guaranteed to have a happy ending. The Los Angeles of La La Land has none of that. It used forty-eight locations in forty-two days of shooting but never captured the fabulous sleaze and utterly American personality of Los Angeles. Production designer David Wasco turned the real L.A. into a fantasia of a city—and it looks fine—but it doesn’t interpret either the real place or its movie essence. There is a movie L.A., but it’s film noir—potent, dark, sexy, with light streaking out from the shadows to reveal nothing good. But those are not the visuals seen onscreen in La La Land. Its world is neither Los Angeles itself nor an interpretation of it. It’s more an interpretation of Scorsese’s Manhattan world in New York, New York, or perhaps even the world of New York beautifully set up in On the Town.
Director Chazelle loves music and understands that cinema should move and use the tools available. His finest achievement is filming dance numbers with a minimum of cuts—in long takes or single takes—and to photograph a dancer Fred Astaire–style: showing the full body, including the dancing feet. But Fred Astaire’s dancing perfection is not present in Chazelle’s stars. The movie says that’s okay: they’re just two little people, à la Capra, who have a dream, and they’re gonna try like heck.
Trying isn’t enough. Successful musicals have to find a way for the song and dance numbers to express the meaning of each character (and their relationships) through lyrics, dance movements, and the sound of music. Since the principals aren’t great singers or dancers, La La Land doesn’t count on that. It talks instead. Stone explains everything, and Gosling really explains everything. (Perhaps this is wise, since the numbers actually explain little.) Gosling is a jazz man who wants to keep the pure art of improvisatory and collaborative jazz alive, but when he’s playing the way the film says he should, he plays alone. Emma Stone is an actress who dreams of stardom, but her high point is a monologue that grows out of her one-woman show—no other actors. She’s a sad sack, uncertain, insecure, fearful, and willing to give up rather than keep trying. The plot becomes confused and confusing as the movie travels forward to its New York, New York ending in which she’s a star, he’s got his nightclub, and he sits down at the piano to “play” the plot of the movie they might have had if they hadn’t wanted careers. The story becomes “You can’t have it all.” They chose career over love.
After the first flood of loony claims that La La Land had brought the modern musical to life as the golden maiden it could be if it had lesser music, nonmusical stars, and plenty of hotcha stuff to decorate the frame (not to mention twirling cameras, which I admit I loved), detractors began to complain about its social issues: feminists labeled Emma Stone’s character a weak woman who marries the jerk she ran away from, and cultural critics noted Gosling was a white man who saves jazz. (There are only a few African American musicians seen in silhouette or backgrounds, until John Legend is allowed to be the villain who stands in the way of pure jazz. Legend’s character actually asks the most important plot question of the film, saying to Gosling, “How can you be revolutionary when you’re a traditionalist?”)
For film purists, the problem of La La Land lies in a question that’s not asked, but that can be observed. When Emma Stone goes into her bedroom, a fragment of a movie poster with Ingrid Bergman’s face has been enlarged on the wall. When Stone and her friends talk in front of it, Bergman steals the scene away from them. One look at her and it’s clear why La La Land, an academic exercise, doesn’t own your heart. Bergman, even on a poster, shines with the radiant light of a great film star. She was not a professional singer, but when she gave out with “See Me Dance the Polka” as a barmaid in the 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, she was everything a musical star should be. The song revealed her sexuality, her joie de vivre, and her openness to life. When Spencer Tracy spotted her behind the bar, bouncing up and down as she hummed along, his Hyde was cooked. Nothing like Ingrid Bergman or her sheer aliveness happens in La La Land. There isn’t even any authenticity to Emma Stone’s stated love of the old movies her aunt introduced her to, such as Casablanca. (Her aunt, a great movie fan, apparently never saw Rebel Without a Cause.)
And here lies a problem regarding the musical over time and history. Once the studio system—the old Hollywood—disappeared, changing into an international system that no longer kept superb musicians, composers, and arrangers under contract, that no longer nurtured real singers and dancers, and that no longer worked hard to locate and create stories that could be musicalized—it became much harder to make a musical. Fewer and fewer were made, and most of the ones that were kept to a simple tradition of Broadway adaptation, documentary, animation, or biopic. The original musical struggled to be original: to find young composers, relevant plots, and musical-performance stars.
It’s an ironic truth that in 2016 one of the best musical numbers appeared in a spoof about old Hollywood, Hail, Caesar!, by Ethan and Joel Coen. In a full six-minute routine, the Coens managed to put on a fabulous re-creation of a 1950s dance number à la Gene Kelly, choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, who fully understood the style of the era. He created a hot tap that is more fun (and more authentic) than anything in La La Land. The setting is a bar called the Swingin’ Dinghy, and the tappers are a bunch of sailors on leave, led by Channing Tatum. (The song is hilarious: “No Dames!”) Tatum looks athletic, like Kelly, and the extended dance number includes sand dancing (using peanut shells), a broom for a partner (like Kelly with his mop in Thousands Cheer), swing dancing from the 1940s, and dancing on tables. The best part is that the creators had obviously seen That’s Entertainment!, which showed how MGM shot one of Eleanor Powell’s dance numbers. Powell was seen dancing on one part of the screen with the camera moving backwards, the stage being split apart and moved into place to accommodate her changes in direction. “No Dames!” is presented through this format: here’s the dance, here’s the dance being shot. Unlike the later La La Land, Hail, Caesar! pays homage to earlier movies and famous movie dancers without making it look like stealing or a weak imitation. The Coens and Gattelli make a number that is itself fresh and original, utterly humorous and satiric, and yet lovingly respectful. The difference seems to lie in the fact that, unlike the stars of La La Land, Tatum and company can really dance.
Musicals are strange beasts, seemingly so predictable and yet so unexpected. In the summer of 2017, a violent crime movie about a getaway driver with wrecked eardrums appeared. It was called Baby Driver. The kid who drove could only do so if he wore an earpiece to control his tinnitus. He could listen to wild music and time his driving moves to the beat of the song. He shifts, he steers, he stomps on the brake. It’s choreography. As a result, he and his car were the best dance team anyone had seen onscreen since Fred and Ginger, and the film turned out to be a musical of sorts—of sorts, I admit, but a musical. To sit in a movie seat and hear rhythm, watch editing and movement onscreen, all perfectly timed to the beats of the s ong—to see moves all coordinated like a perfectly mechanized dance movement—was a musical experience. Baby Driver was an original riff on the musical, an action musical, and a new way to go about showing people living to music in a real, cruel world with things stuck in their ears.
By the end of 2017, it was clear that both moviemakers and moviegoers still wanted musical performance. Some wanted nostalgia, as in The Shape of Water, when a mute woman and the fish she loves re-create “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet to express their commitment, and let’s hope that’s the last time someone decides it’s a good idea to try to be Fred and Ginger. Others wanted a full-out, real, shakin’ new musical with people who could tear it up singin’ and dancing’, as in The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman, Zendaya, Zac Efron, and Michelle Williams. Panned by most critics, Showman soared at the box office through word of mouth, proving audiences would think for themselves and embrace a film that had heart and a high level of musical skill.
In late 2018, a new musical with a great pedigree arrived in theaters: Hollywood’s fourth version of A Star Is Born, and the third to be presented as a musical. Directed by Bradley Cooper and costarring him with the fabulous Lady Gaga, the movie received mixed reviews but took hold of the box office and held on, confidently expecting a slew of Oscar nominations in the style of its ancestors. The new Star retells the familiar story of the famous guy heading downward, awash in booze and pills, who meets a blazingly talented young woman he mentors as she rises upward. They fall deeply in love but are on doomed reverse trajectories. Theirs is an intense, insular world of concert tours hermetically sealed off from natural behavior—a life of fans, arenas, airplanes, and hotel rooms. They represent the isolation of modern fame and talent, and one of them is going to have to die.
Cooper directed expertly in his debut at the helm. He created a film universe that sets up what moviegoers have seen in-documentary-style concert films, but he takes them into its emotional interior. He upsets the male/female ratio of the story, giving himself more to do, including a “tough guy can weep” scene (the film is something of a male weepie, in fact). Cooper’s good, but Gaga is terrific. She can really sing, and she lives up to the challenge of her predecessors, Garland and Streisand. As a singer, she’s the real McCoy, and as an actress, she has no fear of emotion. She’s both wildly erotic and glamorous (singing “La Vie en rose” in a drag club) as well as waiflike and insecure (in her love scenes).
Today’s audiences are familiar with the star-making process, so Star had to be updated for a world in which a cheap form of instant stardom is available to anyone through the internet. (In the earlier films, the rise to stardom provided excitement and the trappings of renaming, selling, and redesigning were revealed.) Star 2018 shows that Lady Gaga, right up front in her first big number, knows how to transform herself to “star” on a Saturday night after she’s done working. She goes to a drag club to play a role, and to appropriate a local form of stardom for herself.
A Star Is Born 2018 reminds an audience how really emotional and dramatic a good musical can be. It has honest-to-goodness stars who deliver what stars are supposed to deliver; and its music soars to depict two people whose love is born in music and lives through music. When Lady Gaga begins to commercialize her musical style, they fall apart.
The success of A Star Is Born indicated, at the end of 2018, that musicals were not just hanging around on the periphery to be tried out occasionally as a revival stunt. They might be back in all sorts of new ways. By Christmas, and the end of the year, Mary Poppins Returns was also in theaters, starring Lin-Manuel Miranda and Emily Blunt, and families were taking children to musicals, just like in the old days. All of a sudden, the genre was part of everyday culture again—and critics like John Jurgensen, writing in The Wall Street Journal, were referring casually to “the recent rebirth of musicals in Hollywood.” Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic about Queen’s Freddie Mercury, was winning awards, and the Coen brothers had begun their episodic (and underrated) Ballad of Buster Scruggs with Tim Blake Nelson singing to people and shooting at them as equally entertaining—and appropriate—acts. Early 2019 brought out a weird quasi-musical, Climax, from experimentalist Gaspar Noé, full of sex, violence, LSD, and young dancers executing some exciting choreography. The Elton John biopic, Rocketman, opened, soon followed by a live-action remake of The Lion King; the Aretha Franklin documentary, Amazing Grace; Danny Boyle’s Yesterday; and Martin Scorsese’s stunning mix of fact and fiction, Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story. Judy, with Renée Zellweger as Garland, and a film version of Cats was underway. An experimental musical concept movie, Waves, was to be released in 2019. Waves would tell a story constructed around music, with the rhythm of editing dictating the rhythm of the story. A zombie musical was in the works, and a zombie version of any genre was a certain endorsement of box office potential. Who knew what the future might hold?