AT THE VERY outset is reality. Modern, 21st century reality. Unmoving cars, back-to-back, bumper-to-bumper, on a Los Angeles flyover, set to the cacophonous soundtrack of impatient yelling and noisy horns. If there is hell in LA, this must be it. An autogeddon. And then suddenly, amidst this urban chaos, one by one, agitated motorists emerge and break into a film tradition of old. They begin to dance to the beats of a superbly choreographed song.
The scene is the opening shot of La La Land, the hit Hollywood musical that has now been nominated for 14 Oscars, tying it with All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997) for the most nominations ever. At the awards night, it could possibly even accomplish a big sweep. This opening scene, a several-minutes-long sequence that gives the appearance of having been shot in a single take, sets up perfectly what the film attempts to do— re-invigorate and modernise the musical genre.
Musicals, once the staple of American studio films, have long fallen out of favour. But La La Land doesn’t just redo it. It blows a fresh contemporary breath into it. To shoot this sequence, apparently an active LA freeway ramp had to be shut for two days. And what do the lead actors do when they first meet each other during this sequence? The hero scowls and honks at her. She gives him the finger.
The film is a big, swooning love-letter to the Hollywood’s Golden Age. It is an ancestor-worshipping, unabashedly joyful film. As difficult as it might be to imagine now, musicals were once the American film industry’s staple, right from the advent of talkies and through the Great Depression and the World Wars. There was The Wizard of Oz (1939), probably the most-loved musical of all time. There was Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), releasing just months after D-Day and the musical comedy Singin’ In The Rain (1952). There were top musical stars like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, whose successful pairing resulted in a number of classics like Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936) and Shall We Dance (1937).
But gradually, as tastes changed, TV invaded homes and the old studio system began to transform, the musical genre began to quieten down. No one wanted to invest in original musicals anymore and the film industry instead looked to the stage for source material. There were some great and extremely popular musicals in the later decades as well, many of them stage-adaptations, from West Side Story, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music in the 1960s to Cabaret and Grease in the 1970s. But musicals continued to dwindle. There were fewer and fewer crowd-pleasing musicals. Mainstream films were now gritty and realistic, from Bonnie and Clyde to The Graduate. And soon most musicals were mostly restricted to animated Disney films.
We could do with some musicals today. Unlike Bollywood, for all its faults, which continues to hold song-and-dance dear, Hollywood films are now either too gritty or dull. Too real. Or they veer towards the other end, featuring superheroes or zombies or apocalypses.
We could do with the surrealism of a classical musical. Where people suddenly break into a dance and their inner personalities are revealed through song. Where the film and its emotions are conveyed not through dialogues or action, but through melody and moves.
La La Land is not a pitch-perfect film. But as a musical, with its sweeping original numbers, the charm and intimacy of its leads, and its grand spectacle, it is a hat-tip to a certain type of filmmaking of old. During his Golden Globe speech earlier this year, the film’s director Damien Chazelle thanked the studio Lionsgate for taking the gamble, “and for believing that an audience for a movie like this does exist.” Perhaps it really does.