La La Land, Singin’ in the Rain and how the Hollywood Musical has changed

After my first viewing of La La Land (LLL), apart from humming city of stars on the train home, what I found gave me that wonderful warm afterglow from the film was its many call-backs to the golden age of cinema and to ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (SITR) in particular. Once I had become guilty of a second viewing I boldly charged myself with a dozy afternoon re-watching the latter and became intrigued by how much the style, tone and general theatrics of the once eponymous Hollywood Musical has changed.

Before we get started I’ll address the fact that yes, SITR is a musical comedy while LLL is a musical drama and so the tone of each will of course be different BUT just the fact that they went for a heavier emotional tone itself is revealing, as we will see. So! What better than to compare these two landmark films through all their wondrous spectacle and Californian dreaminess (as well as learn a few interesting production notes from behind-the-scenes along the way).

Diving straight in let’s start by becoming a bit more familiar with Singin’ in the Rain and the astonishing amount of work that went into making such an iconic film. Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen – one a dancer, the other a choreographer – days filming could rack up to 19 hours doing take after take. Donald O’Connor, who played Cosmo, Gene Kelly’s cheeky sidekick, was already a prolific on screen performer trained in vaudeville like both of his parents. Between Donald and Gene was years of experience, discipline and training which they dropped like a tidal wave on the late Debbie Reynolds (especially Gene), a relative newcomer at the age of 19 (!!) with little in the way of dancing experience but an impressive set of vocals as her trump card.

The most noticeable difference I find at first glance between the two films is the choreography, and boy does SITR set a high bar. It flaunts, without compromise, the incredible skill of these stage professionals of the time. The trio mentioned before (and seen below) perform dynamic, fast-paced musical numbers with almost pin-point precision that ooze polish, joy and pure entertainment. If you don’t believe me just watch ‘Good Morning’ and you’ll see what I mean.

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After shooting the “Good Morning” routine, which had taken from 8am until 11pm and 40 takes, Reynolds’ feet were bleeding. She’s quoted as saying that “Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do in my life.”

Many of the songs are also isolated from the story, presenting no real development of character or narrative. They are whimsical and catchy and bolstered by very energetic routines. The entire story of SITR was actually formed around the songs which came first, many being taken from other feature films, including the title song. What seems obvious at first but actually presents a significant difference between the two films is that in SITR they regularly acknowledge the camera during songs. Looking straight down the lens and detaching themselves from the sealed silver screen world makes it known that they’re here to entertain you and it almost feels like they’re back up on stage as vaudeville entertainers.

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Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly playing up to the camera in Moses Supposes

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s sequences, on the other hand, have a relaxed choreography that’s less precise and more imperfect, more real and where the fourth wall is never broken. This is not an accident as according to Stone, Mandy Moore (LLL’s choreographer) emphasised ‘emotion over technique’ which immediately makes sense. Where SITR focused on putting on a show, LLL’s priorities lie grounded in storytelling and maintaining a detached world.

The music in La La Land is employed to strengthen the narrative with motifs that follow the characters through the story. One song on the soundtrack is even called ‘Mia & Sebastian’s Theme’. It is only the very first number, ‘Another Day of Sun’ where the film matches many of the characteristics of the Hollywood Musicals of old; actors play up to the camera, the song doesn’t rely on a narrative core but stands on its own and the complex choreography shows off some pretty impressive set pieces, all aiming for that pure entertainment factor. It simply enjoys the energy of the music. That, I think, is why the strange, almost detached feeling of the first song from the rest of the film is an onscreen example of how the industry’s expectations and style has changed. It’s a modern homage slotted in as a colourful and spectacular opener.

So what have we learned so far? We have learned that 60 years ago the Hollywood Musical revolved around the Theatre, Music and Showmanship of all those involved. Whereas now, what La La Land represents is a testament to this era but choosing story over jazz hands. Where instead of being from the point of view of an already world famous and glamorous film star like in SITR, it scales it down to the struggle of getting there in the first place in a city engulfed by dreamers looking to make it famous. Stars with a ready-made mastery as slick entertainers switches to broader creative passions like Mia’s play-writing and Seb’s Jazz music. The very movement of the characters becomes slower. They are given more time to express emotion and build gravitas which is emphasised by the greater use of intimate camera shots.

Even the humour has changed. It is less physical and more subtle. An entire number in SITR relies on physical humour and slapstick (Make Em’ Laugh) while La La Land relies on snappy and witty dialogue with only a few physical touches from Gosling added to the mix due to his already mischievous persona and charm.

This all changes, however, in one of my favourite sequences of La La Land which also manages to pack in several SITR references. However disorientating it might be in the context of the film’s story the epilogue dream sequence glides into pure cinematic ecstasy culminating together the glamour, joy and theatre of Hollywood (notice the similarities now). The costumes, choreography, set design and most importantly music rocket the film to the heights of the Golden Age of Cinema. A bubble within the film encasing the previous era’s grandiosity until it pops and wrenches you back to the emotional and bittersweet reality.

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La La Land’s Finale Dream Sequence

Damien Chazelle himself (LLL’s director) said he wanted “to take the old musical but ground it in real life where things don’t exactly work out”. Diana Dabrowska of Cinema Scope wrote, “La La Land may look like the world that we dream about, but it also understands the cruelty that can come out of (or undermine) those dreams.” Hollywood in general has taken this trend of becoming more grounded in realism over the decades. The pomp and melodrama of old pictures have turned to naturalism, even in La La Land, a more fantastical film than many of its contemporaries. In fact, back in 2010 Chazelle was unable to find a studio willing to take on this project for an original contemporary musical with no pre-existing fan base.

One part which Chazelle did purposefully keep alive from back in the day was doing entire musical numbers in a single take. Gosling and Stone spent three months in dance rehearsals and voice coaching while Gosling unbelievably learned to play the piano so well that no CGI or double was needed. This method can be a challenging choice in production but reaps many rewards in the final cut’s spectacle. As an example, Donald O’Connor’s ‘Make Em’ Laugh’ epitomises the sheer stamina that was put into these unbroken scenes:

The number was so physically taxing that O’Connor, who smoked four packs of cigarettes a day at the time, went to bed (or may have been hospitalised, depending on the source) for a week after its completion, suffering from exhaustion, bruises and painful carpet burns. Unfortunately, an accident ruined all of the initial footage, so after a brief rest, O’Connor – ever the professional – agreed to do the difficult number all over again.

I would love to spend more time delving further but sometimes it’s better not to over-analyse and just enjoy the cinema magic. We have swept over many decades to look solely at these two gorgeous films, similar in their nostalgia and change. But what I’ve found is that the thing that puts them apart is the core of Hollywood Musicals having developed from an intense exhibition of showbiz, flamboyance and skill to that of presenting refined emotions and truer-to-life storytelling.

The Man Without A Plan

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