The Masterpieces Behind La La Land
By Adam Cook
In truth, it never seems like we go too many years without some talk of a revival in the Hollywood musical. But any supposed renewed interest in the form seems to dissipate after awards season. Right now we’re in the thick of it, with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land an Oscar favourite for next month. Specifically, with La La Land, it is a film informed by a love for the history of the Hollywood musical — and Hollywood in general — that points to the films it counts as influences and inspiration. From Singing in the Rain to the work of Vincente Minnelli, to more modern subversive musicals such as Jacques Demy’s singular Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Martin Scorsese’s criminally underrated New York, New York, both of which screen at Vancity Theatre on January 29th and 31st — so you can brush up on the movies that La La Land owes, well, everything to, in time for the Academy Awards.
Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one of the most romantic, colourful, and heart-wrenching musicals of all time. It is also one of the most experimental. Every single word in the film is sung, the entire movie a staged musical sequence, bringing it closer to Opera than Hollywood. Catherine Deneuve plays an umbrella shop girl who falls for a mechanic — a union her mother doesn’t approve of, and one challenged when he’s shipped off to the Algerian War. Every emotion is there on the surface, in its carefully crafted mise en scène, the expressions of the actors, and the melodies. Pure form and style, Demy sustains this language for 90 sublime minutes. His understanding of colour, and in the core of what makes musicals work, not necessarily unforgettable songs and dances so much as directness and clarity of emotional ideas, expressed elegantly and using the power of sound and image to its fullest potential. The film elevates the emotions behind a story of romance and heartbreak to the highest stakes imaginable.
New York, New York, on the other hand, was Scorsese’s attempt to import elements of the Classical Hollywood musical into New Hollywood, to mix the formalism of the former with the realism of the latter that had characterized his films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. What happens when you take the rules of the musical but unearth the subtext and deal with complex human psychology? The result is something unlike anything Scorsese made, and really unlike anything ever made. Robert De Niro plays a pompous musician who aggressively pursues Liza Minnelli, who happens to be a singer. Once the two come together — after one of the most comically uncomfortable courtships in cinema — the question of the film shifts to “how can two artists with egos and ambitions be together?”. Its answer to that question is pointedly unromantic and realistic. De Niro and Minnelli both give remarkable performances and their on screen relationship is as complex as the ones Scorsese is famous for in Raging Bull, Casino, etc. De Niro’s saxophonist is selfish, repressed, and needy, and while he loves Minnelli, does he even know how? Of course, this is also the film that gave us the song “New York, New York”, which is best known as a Sinatra cover, but was sung here first, and better, by Minnelli in the film’s climactic sequence.
As with other genres that defined Classical Hollywood such as the Western, it’s doubtful we’ll see a true revival of the Musical — but the richness of what exists is overwhelming, and there’s still lots to take away from them today. At least Damien Chazelle realizes that.