LOS ANGELES PAYS TRIBUTE TO ITSELF
Playing Spot That Influence with Damien Chazelle's Oscar frontrunner LA LA LAND
Finally arriving in theaters after a crowd-pleasing tour of fall festivals, La La Land reveals itself not so much as an “original” screen musical as a pastiche of umpteen prior ones, plus every other Hollywood trope it can cram in. Even the pairing of stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (who were cast after Chazelle’s initial choices bowed out) comes with its own cinematic mini-history, as the actors already appeared together in Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) and Gangster Squad (2013). But most of the film’s references are more old-school, as they evoke movie memories from Astaire & Rogers’ 1930s vehicles to Fame and beyond. Below is a tip sheet to just a few answers within La La’s epic trivia game of spot-that-influence.
The dislike-at-first-sight romance is a stock narrative device, as protagonists who initially irk one another experience gradual mutual warming. But La La Land, in which prickly, perfectionist jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) and struggling actress Mia (Stone) find chemistry overcoming their differences (at least to a point), seems particularly indebted plot-wise to one prior movie musical. That would be Martin Scorsese’s 1977 New York, New York, another anachronistic throwback in which the retro splashiness of the production numbers and settings was offset by the discord between Robert De Niro’s prickly, perfectionist jazz sax player and Liza Minnelli’s aspiring singer-actress. And in turn that film seemed much indebted to Mitchell Leisen’s 1937 Swing High, Swing Low, wherein Carole Lombard’s aspiring singer falls for Fred MacMurray’s prickly, oft-obnoxious jazz trumpeter. Both these older features have gained critical stature over the years, but neither were commercial hits at the time, no doubt in large part to their off-puttingly abrasive leading male characters. La La softens that aspect, but the basic premise and dynamic remains the same.
If the scene where Stone and Gosling defy gravity in an empty planetarium rings a bell, it ought to: You’ve seen performers “dancing on air” before. Goldie Hawn pulled off a very similar-looking stunt in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You twenty years ago. But the most famous gravity-defying dance was Fred Astaire’s in Royal Wedding (1951), where a rotating set allowed him the illusion of “dancing on the ceiling”—which became the title of a 1986 Lionel Ritchie song whose music video used camera trickery to achieve the same effect. But even that seeming innovation wasn’t truly new: In 1919, stunt enthusiast Douglas Fairbanks devised a sequence in When the Clouds Roll By that, while tilted toward slapstick comedy rather than dance, flaunted exactly the same ingenious idea.
Though shot in 35mm CinemaScope like many big musicals of the 1950s and ’60s, La La Land’s single most anachronistic element may be its insistence on “head-to-toe” framing of dance sequences. It’s a risky gambit, as neither of his stars are professionally trained dancers (or at least they weren’t until they began rehearsing for this film). But anyone who’s felt exasperation watching the MTV-style editorial hyperactivity and body segmentation of most latterday screen musicals can appreciate Chazelle’s decision. At least here we can see the full design of the choreography by So You Think You Can Dance’s Mandy Moore (not to be confused with the same-named singer/actress), and at any moment in time can be certain we’re actually watching the actors’ moves, not those of uncredited dance doubles. There is, however, some technical sleight-of-hand in the film’s opening “Another Day of Sun” number: What looks like a single, continuous shot was in fact subtly cobbled together from multiple takes shot over several days’ course on a closed-off freeway ramp.
La La Land verbally name-checks a number of “Golden Era” Hollywood classics (including Bringing Up Baby and Casablanca), while incorporating 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause as a plot point, brief clip, and location (the above-mentioned planetarium scene at Griffith Observatory). Chazelle screened a number of other movies as inspiration for his cast and crew, notably Singin’ in the Rain, some Astaire-Rogers titles, 1953’s The Band Wagon, and two by France’s late Jacques Demy. In general feel the latter’s 1968 Young Girls of Rochefort, with its sumptuous Michel Legrand score, may be this new film’s closest model—both filmmakers being very interested in transplanting traditional Hollywood musical conventions whole to a contemporary setting. (Demy even gave Singin’s Gene Kelly a role to make that connection yet clearer.)
As its title emphasizes, La La Land is among other things a tribute to the “Dream Factory” town that is synonymous with moviemaking and its rich past. Chazelle went out of his way to find locations with historical resonance, including the shuttered Angels Flight funicular railway and an actual Warner Bros. studio backlot. Chazelle has also noted the influence of silent “city symphony” films, Paul Strand’s Manhatta and Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera being among the most famous. For visions of L.A. during their era, check out the shorts A Visit to Los Angeles—a straightforward Chamber of Commerce-type appreciation—as well as the more surreal and experimental industry critique The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra.
A splendid mid-century view of largely long-gone downtown sites (including that funicular) is afforded by Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 semi-documentary The Exiles. Latterday indies such as In Search of a Midnight Kiss (2007) and this year’s Nobody Walks in L.A. have structured themselves as walking tours of undersung Angelean locations. But the ultimate cinematic anthem to Los Angeles is surely film critic/academic Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), an illustrated lecture in which the city’s sometimes contradictory roles as movie capital, backdrop, and state of mind are probed in three hours of unpredictable clips and commentary.