I have always loved musicals. When I was a kid, and an aspiring ballroom dancer, I watched all the classics on our black and white television set on Sunday afternoons, thrilled by the songs and the dances, by the romantic storylines, and by the sheer soaring energy of stars like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. The breath-taking joys of colour and cinemascope, and an appreciation of how lightly the ‘simplicity’ of musicals was worn would come later, but from the earliest age, I was hooked. When Grease was released in 1978, I was one of those teenagers who saw it again and again at the cinema, and who would rush home from my dance class on Thursday evenings to see which number was dominating Top of the Pops that week. It was my generation’s own newly-minted classic, and I am word perfect on every song to this day.
La La Land (Damian Chazelle) is clearly set to be this generation’s musical juggernaut. With the awards season barely underway, it has already taken all seven of the Golden Globes for which it was nominated, and has a record number of Academy Award (14) and BAFTA (11) nominations. Two of the Academy Award nominations are for Best Original Song for (City of Stars and Audition: The Fools who Dream), putting the film in competition with itself in this category. Critics and popular journalists fresh from the 2016 festival circuit were initially unanimous in their praise for the film; but hype never escapes a backlash. Social media this last month has been full of articles deploring the ‘whitespaining’ of jazz by Ryan Gosling’s musician character, the marginalising of black musician John Legend, the lack of ethnic diversity in on-location Los Angeles, and the less-than-Broadway level musical talents of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Whether or not the film will endure as a classic remains to be seen: time will tell whether the appetite for La La Land speaks more to its originality and ambition to renew the musical genre than to its timely provision of a magical escape route from our increasingly apocalyptic post-Brexit, post-Trump era newsfeeds. In the meantime, the most eloquent commentary I have seen about the polarised attitudes to the film comes from Jose Arroyo, at Warwick University, and I’d encourage BAFTSS colleagues to seek out his always thoughtful ‘First Impressions’ film blog if they don’t already know it:
A few years ago, I was given the opportunity to write a BFI Classics book on one of my all-time favourite films, Vincente Minnelli’s sublime An American in Paris (1951). For me, this was a chance to bring together long-standing scholarly interests in star studies, in the craft of set design, and in the cultural imaginary of Paris in a serious study of a film I had always loved as a viewer rather than an academic. Like La La Land, An American in Paris was acclaimed on release as an outstanding musical, and it won an unprecedented six Academy Awards including Best Picture over such serious fare as A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun. Was it the best picture that year? No. Was it even the best example of a musical ever made? Probably not all things considered. But its success confirmed that musicals could be ambitious, capture the public imagination, and succeed on their own terms. I am firmly in the camp that loves Chazelle’s contemporary homage to the pleasures of the big screen musical, and I can’t wait to see La La Land again.