Reel Dad: La La Land (and the movies it celebrates)

by Mark Schumann
Father of Three

When La La Land goes to the Oscars on Feb. 26, it arrives as the frontrunner for major awards as well as a connector to Hollywood’s past. As current as the film feels with its visual approach, director Damien Chazelle also pays tribute to celebrated musicals of years gone by. Here’s a look at how La La Land celebrates these classics as its creators get ready to celebrate at the Oscars.

The Magic: Fred and Ginger

In the 1930s, as America faced moments of uncertainty, people went to the movies to escape the realities of the outside world. Musicals became popular because they could sweep audiences away with song and dance. Of these films, those that starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers soared in popularity simply because these performers could defy gravity when they danced.

From Top Hat to Swing Time, from Carefree to Shall We Dance, Astaire and Rogers would make 10 musicals starting in 1935. In each of them, no matter the plot, they could use song and dance to communicate what they feel, what they fear and what they hope. Their musical numbers seem to emerge from thin air as if spontaneously lifted by inspiration. And when they step in time together, earth becomes irrelevant. As La La Land pays tribute to the magic of this team, it honors the essence of why we love musicals on screen.

 

The Memories: Singin’ in the Rain

Before the movies could sing or dance, films were silent. Then, when microphones were introduced – in the late 1920s – many silent film careers abruptly ended because audiences discovered that famous stars didn’t sound the way they should. And, in 1952, Broadway writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green turned a real situation into this reel fantasy that many consider to be the best musical movie ever made.

What Singin’ in the Rain captures – perhaps better than any other film – is the thrill of making movies. Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen use song and dance to make us believe there is no place as exciting as a studio, no glamour as fleeting, no reality so artificial. Like La La Land, Singin’ in the Rain takes off into a creative space, a journey that every musical, in the years since, has tried to recreate.

 

The Movements: The Bandwagon

After making his final film with Ginger Rogers in 1949, Fred Astaire discovered a new partner in the lovely Cyd Charisse. In Vincente Minnelli’s classic The Bandwagon, from 1953, Astaire and Charisse find themselves cast as show business opposites in a story that explores the ups and downs of musical careers. Much like La La Land, the characters discover what they mean to each other when music enters the relationship. Like Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the stars Astaire and Charisse discover love when they begin to sing and dance.

This all comes together when the duo – while riding a carriage through Central Park – spontaneously begin to let dance express their feelings. To the strains of the lovely melody Dancing in the Dark, the stars pursue each other with a candor defined by movement, as they step closer and then apart, together and then separate. Without dialogue, as in the La La Land dance sequences, the individuals become one. And music connects their souls.

 

The Meaning: New York, New York

Interestingly, the musical that may most resemble La La Land was directed by Martin Scorsese, not necessarily the first name associated with song and dance films! In 1977 – in a change of pace from the dark themes of Taxi Driver and Mean Streets – the future Oscar-winner would make a musical that few people saw and most don’t remember. New York, New York offers, in addition to that catchy title tune, brilliant performances from Robert DeNiro and Liza Minnelli as, no surprise, show business opposites who use music to articulate their feelings.

Like Ryan Gosling in La La Land, DeNiro plays a jazz musician searching for ways to share his sound; similar to Emma Stone, Minnelli plays a performer struggling to secure her first break. Together DeNiro and Minnelli create a grown-up fantasy set against Scorsese’s brilliant recreation of the artificial world that studios create. As director Damien Chazelle does with La La Land, Scorsese reminds us that what happens in a musical may not create happy endings in real life.

 

Yes, Hollywood loves to honor movies about Hollywood and La La Land celebrates some of the best musicals we remember. So, if the new movie prevails on Oscar night, its creators have many films to thank.

 

How Oscar loves show business

by Mark Schumann

If La La Land wins big at the Oscars on Feb. 26, it will continue an Academy Awards tradition as lasting as nervous nominees and designer dresses. Since 1929, when the awards began, the Academy has shown its love for any story that celebrates the business called show. Let’s take a look at winners and nominees that Oscar has honored over the years.

 

42nd Street, Best Picture nominee, 1933

While many may remember this as a stage show — with Tony Awards for its Broadway productions in 1980 and 2001 – the origins go back to an original musical about the highs and lows of a show business career. Ruby Keeler made a depressed nation happy every time she started to tap while Ginger Rogers walked away with most of the picture.

 

The Great Ziegfeld, Best Picture winner, 1936

This musical extravaganza is, supposedly, a bio pic of famed theatrical producer Florenz Ziegfeld. But it’s really an excuse for MGM to stage a lot of over-the-top musical sequences within a thin storyline. Louise Rainer won an Oscar for Best Actress for playing Ziegfeld’s wife over more substantive performances from Carole Lombard and Norma Shearer.

 

Fasten your seatbelt … Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and George Sanders in All About Eve.

Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and George Sanders in All About Eve.

All About Eve, Best Picture winner, 1950

This delicious comedy takes us backstage to see Broadway’s gossip, deceit, ambition and disappointment. And it’s so much fun. Bette Davis soars as an aging stage star who tries to deny the passage of time when she feels threatened by the ever-so-manipulative Anne Baxter. Like La La Land, the film was nominated for 14 Oscars. It ultimately won six.

 

Sunset Boulevard, Best Picture nominee, 1950

While Bette Davis was chewing scenery on Broadway in All About Eve, Gloria Swanson made the comeback of a lifetime as an aging movie star from the silent era who wants to make a comeback. Billy Wilder’s cynical film takes no prisoners in its daring tale of how ambition drives people to believe anything they want to believe. And its musical version is back on Broadway!

 

The Greatest Show on Earth, Best Picture winner, 1952

Recent news reporting the end of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus bring to mind this Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza that was a surprise Oscar winner of 1952 over the ever-so-more-substantial High Noon and The Quiet Man. Amazingly, the classic from that year, Singin’ in the Rain, was not even nominated for Best Picture.

 

The Bad and the Beautiful, Best Actor nominee, 1952

Kirk Douglas plays a mean movie producer in this entertaining examination of the deceit and deception that can occur behind a movie screen. Whether or not any of it is true is irrelevant. It’s great drama. Gloria Grahame was named Best Supporting Actress for a role that only lasts nine minutes on screen.

 

A Star Is Born, Best Actor and Actress nominees, 1954

This second version of a classic story of success and heartbreak at the movies – following the 1937 version, also an Oscar nominee – becomes a showcase for Judy Garland’s musical and dramatic talents. Many movie fans still believed she was robbed when Grace Kelly was named Best Actress for her dramatic turn in The Country Girl. This was Garland’s movie moment.

 

Funny Girl, Best Picture nominee, Best Actress winner, 1968

Barbra Streisand won a well-deserved Oscar – in a tie with Katharine Hepburn – for recreating her Broadway role as stage superstar Fanny Brice. Years later, watching the movie is a revelation. We relive the thrill of experiencing the Streisand magic on screen for the first time. And she beautifully captures what it means to a performer to sing on a big stage.

 

The Producers, Best Story and Screenplay winner, 1968

Mel Brooks’ outrageous look at deception on the Great White Way – that later became a Broadway musical of its own – takes pot shots at every tradition we treasure about the theater. Brooks spares no one in his obsession with the show business ambition to make money no matter how much it costs. Gene Wilder was a deserving Best Supporting Actor nominee.

 

The Player, Best Director nominee, 1992

Robert Altman’s brilliant take on disappointment in the movie business uses every audio and visual trick the director can imagine, from overlapping dialogue to an amazing opening shot that Damien Chazelle celebrates in La La Land. While Altman’s use of the camera may be what’s remembered of the film, the precision of the script is what makes the movie work.

 

L.A. Confidential, Best Picture nominee, 1998

Yes, it should have won the Oscar. But that over-the-top adventure called Titanic won every Oscar in sight. Curtis Hanson’s tribute to 1950s Hollywood is a real movie-movie as its dramatic plot intersects with show business at every turn. With Kim Basinger’s Oscar-winning turn as a call girl who looks like a star, the movie smolders with drama behind the movie screen.

 

Bullets Over Broadway, Best Director nominee, Best Supporting Actress winner, 1994

Leave it to Woody Allen to create an ultimate send up of Broadway ambition in this satire of the stage in the 1920s. The writer/director brilliantly connects the world of organized crime to the disorganized chaos of a Broadway show as a young playwright becomes the voice for a gangster with show biz ambitions. As the diva, Dianne Wiest won her second Oscar.

 

The Artist, Best Picture winner, 2011

This tribute to Hollywood mystique offers a dream‐like remembrance of the magic of silent movies and a sympathetic treatment of how stars dealt with the transition to sound. The film doesn’t simply celebrate the early days of the talkies, it uses the conventions of early cinema to tell its story. And Oscar could not get enough.

 

Birdman, Best Picture winner, 2014

This film asks what a performer will do to return to the spotlight. Michael Keaton soars as an actor who made his name playing a super hero on film (like Keaton as Batman in 1989). Years later, to revive his career, the actor sinks his heart, soul and money into a Broadway play. But the journey becomes complicated when he is haunted by memories. Oscar loved it.

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