Is La La Land an Homage to Something that Doesn’t Exist?

la-la-land-vinyl-cover-2On Christmas Eve, like may good gays, I saw La La Land with my mother. At the time, I had pretty much only read about it via Kyle Buchanan’s Oscar Futures column at Vulture, which lead me to believe there was a generally unified positive consensus about this movie. But the audience response at the theater was decidedly mixed–some people loved it, some were confused, one guy kept complaining about spending 2 hours and 4 minutes watching it–and the twitter-verse seems to be the same. I personally loved it. I loved its visual style, the fine performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the elegant and wistful choreography by Mandy Moore (not to be confused with the one from This is Us), the way it tempers dreamlike fantasy with somber reality, and what it says about defining success and succeeding on one’s own terms.

One thing I think La La Land was NOT was a “throwback to classic movie musicals,” mostly because I don’t know if that’s a thing that really exists. I mean, yes, obviously, there are non-animated musicals written directly for screen that are classics. But I don’t know if, as a genre, the Original Movie Musical (OMM) ever fully developed into a recognizable, codified, art form.  What are the “tropes” of the genre?

I can identify a few major types of OMM:

  • “Let’s Put on a Show!” (Summerstock, things with Mickey Rooney)
  • Elegant Ballroom Dancing (things with Fred Astaire)
  • Family Fantasy (Songs by the Sherman Brothers, The Wizard of Oz)
  • Almost a Regular Musical (Gigi, Calamity Jane, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Vincent Minnelli movies)
  • Jukebox OMMs (Holiday Inn, White Christmas, Singing in the Rain)
  • ARTISTIC (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg)
  • Huh? (Repo: The Genetic Opera)

While some of these types can coexist in a single movie, for the most part they only seem at all similar if they share major performers, directors, or writers. Perhaps that’s why there’s always something a little uncomfortable about watching an OMM–there’s never anything to hold on to, nothing to let you know what to expect. They haven’t sung for 20 minutes, will the ever sing again? MAYBE. Are these secondary characters going to get story lines and songs or even a second scene? COULD BE. Oh, so now there’s just a 20 minute impressionistic dance sequence? IS THERE A QUESTION? The OMM isn’t a style of how movies are made so much as a list of things that happened.

So what is La La Land an homage to? I think it bears the strongest connection–in terms of visual style, tone, theme, and musical sensibility–to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but a case could be made for almost any of the types identified above. There’s a tension in the fact that you think La La Land *should* feel familiar, but instead it feels like they’re making up the rules as they go along. Maybe it’s this reckless unruliness that most connects La La Land to the Golden Age is seems to allude to (even if it never existed).