Mad About Musicals: La La Land Reminds Us of Hollywood’s Long Legacy of Song and Dance


Movie musicals have never really gone away, but it’s been a while since one has caused a stir quite like La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as an aspiring actress and a jazz pianist in Los Angeles. A soaring, old-fashioned love story set to music, it created major international buzz at the Cannes Film Festival in May and it opened in U.S. theaters this weekend. Will mainstream audiences also go gaga for it?

Well, why not? Music is as compelling as ever. A competition show like NBC’s The Voice imbues every performance with a heightened sense of drama, even suspense. Networks have been lining up to re-create iconic Broadway shows and movie musicals—Hairspray, The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, Grease, The Rocky Horror Picture Show—for TV audiences, often live.

And just ask any fan who’s seen Broadway’s Hamilton or any parent who’s sat through Frozen 50 times about the power of storytelling set to song.

Realism With Heart

“The musical can act like a shortcut to emotions in a really profound way that kind of catches you off guard,” says Damien Chazelle, 31, who directed La La Land. He cites Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), starring Judy Garland, as one of his personal favorites. “It finishes and I really feel like I’ve lived with these characters, like I’m connected to them in a way that ‘realistic’ movies sometimes can’t connect you.”

Chazelle is betting on his young La La Land stars to help make that connection. Emma Stone, 28, says of herself and Gosling, 36, “Ryan and I are not traditional people that you would think to see in a musical. It was important to Damien that they felt like real, flawed people—and performers. And the movie itself is a cinematic experience beyond just being a musical.”

La La Land opens with a tour-de-force song-and-dance sequence set in a morning traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway. If that scene doesn’t grab audiences, nothing will. The young writer-director, whose breakout feature Whiplash (2014) made him an “overnight” success (and earned three Oscars, including one for actor J.K. Simmons), has been dreaming of making this movie since he was a film student. His college roommate, Justin Hurwitz, wrote the music.

An American Art Form

Chazelle is an unabashed fan of classic musicals like An American in Paris (1951), starring Gene Kelly. “You think of it as very mainstream Hollywood. It was a big hit. It’s still beloved today,” he says. “And yet, it ends with almost 20 minutes of no dialogue:…